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History of Sailing Technology in the West

Updated on February 6, 2013
Modern sailboat.
Modern sailboat. | Source

Since most of the Earth's surface is covered with water, it is only natural that it became an important medium for transportation, especially during the early days of civilization in the Mediterranean. Some form of propulsion was needed to move the boats that carried cargo from place to place. Sticks, paddles, and oars were one option, but they required a lot of labour. The sail, once discovered, was a great step forward. Boats could be made bigger and heavier and travel farther than before, opening up the seas to trade and exploration.

Early Developments

The oldest boats and sailing craft appear to have been developed in Egypt, at least 6000 years ago. By about 3500 BCE, the Egyptians had replaced early improvised sails made of leafy branches with true sails made of woven reeds or leaves mounted on a vertical mast in the bow. However, since the mast was at the front of the boat, the sail could only be used when the wind was almost directly from behind. Initially, the sails were used to help the paddlers and rowers. Eventually a ship was developed that was moved mainly by the wind, using a tall and narrow square sail.

In about 3000 BCE, a bipod mast, with one leg planted on each side of the boat was developed. It was suited to reed and wooden boats of this era since a keel into which a single mast could be securely mounted had not yet been invented.

Significant advancement occurred around 2000 BCE. The mast was made of one piece, and the bipod mast was abandoned from this point onward. The position of the mast also changed; it gradually moved back until about 1900 BCE, when it reached the middle of the boat and stayed there, presumably placed directly on the keel which had been invented by this time. With this mast position and rigging, the ship could now be sailed in a half-wind. The dimensions of the sail were also reversed, becoming much wider than high, which was better for handling strong winds.

Egyptian, Cretan, and Phoenician sailing ships from this period show similar developments, with local variations, suggesting some exchange of knowledge. However, Egyptian craft were too weak for the open sea, being essentially reinforced river boats. But improvements were soon made. From about 1200 BCE onward, sails no longer have a boom, and the size and shape of the sail could be easily adjusted with a system of lines to adapt to wind conditions.

Roman trireme.
Roman trireme. | Source

Greeks and Romans

From about 800 BCE, the Greeks engaged in sea trade on a larger scale. Greek warships of around 500 BCE are the lightest and most elegant craft of classical times. The mainsail on warships was likely only used on patrol trips, with the mast lowered for battle.

Roman warships from about 30 BCE onward are similar to Greek ships, and were generally large and heavy. Roman ships also had multiple sails, including a small foresail to assist in steering, and several triangle-shaped topsails above the mainsail for use in light winds.

By about 200, the Mediterranean ship designs reached a relatively stable level of design with the development of Roman merchant craft. This ship was about 30 m long and 10 m wide, adhering to the 3:1 ratio of length to breadth which would still be used a thousand years later. On some ships, rigs were constructed allowing two or more sails to be set in line with the keel. Water commerce during the Roman period was slow in terms of ship speeds, but navigation was sufficiently advanced for development of trade routes throughout the Mediterranean.

Lateen sails.
Lateen sails. | Source

Going Upwind

The next significant advance was the lateen sail, which occurred around the end of the 800s. Shaped like a triangle, a lateen sail is rigged to a long yard which hangs at a slant from a short mast, allowing it to be swung much farther than a square sail. Square riggers could sail no closer to the wind than 65 degrees. But with a lateen sail, ships could now tack into the wind, in a zigzag path, making upwind travel much more efficient. The square sail disappeared once the lateen sail was introduced and did not reappear until about the 1300s.

Modern yachts today can sail within 45 degrees of the wind or better due to tall masts and advanced sails made of synthetics. After 6000 years of refinement, sailboats today are now more efficient than ever, although this technology in modern times has become obsolete for most purposes other than recreation. But to the ancients, the sail was all-important. It enabled them to increase trade, exploration, and areas of influence.

© 2012 ArchonCodex


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