A Short History of Sailing - Part I

Two thirds of the World’s surface is covered by water. The majority of all people on this planet lives by or near the coast – and has done so for millennia. The striving of man to explore and extend his horizon has always been constrained by the sea and the limitations of those vessels that would carry people further and further offshore. This article aims to investigate the history of sailing – which, in fact, is the history of people who pushed the world’s horizon.

For thousands of years, wind was the only source of energy that would allow man to pass long distances over seas such as the Mediterranean or the Atlantic Ocean. Distances that proved to be too long to be overcome by the use of muscle power and paddles only. This limitation naturally led different civilizations to develop different ways to exploit this only sufficient source of energy.

Starting from the most primitive vessels – little more than trees with a piece of cloth on top, a construction still used by many fishermen in developing countries – people quickly improved their skills in navigation and the construction of more sophisticated boats. Phoenician started early to master the Mediterranean, only challenged and eventually defeated by the uprising power of Rome.

Boats as the key to Mediterranean civilizations

As most highly developed civilizations concentrated around the Mediterranean, this naturally favored a strong interest in navigation and all disciplines concerned with it – astronomy, meteorology, shipbuilding and even basic forms of oceanography. Antiquity boosted mankind’s skills in passing long distances over the seas.

Much of the knowledge of the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Romans and Greek disappeared and was forgotten during the Middle Ages. Viking longboats used mostly the power of men at oars and primitive square-sails. The shape of square-sail rigs quickly became the most common rig type in European nations.

The Arabs, however, developed their own characteristic, triangular sail as a more efficient solution. Arabic dhows could sail upwind very well and proved to be more flexible and navigable than European ships equipped with square-sails.

Junk, slightly different: Chinese sail boats

Completely different were concepts even further away, in China. The Chinese lugsail is more often referred to as a junk rig, was rigged to a short mast and based on long bamboo battens. The construction of junks was likely to be the most efficient and sophisticated of its days, being cheap and flexible and at the same time easy to navigate. This allowed junks to sail with a relatively small crew on board.

A much simpler construction was created on the Polynesian islands of the Pacific Ocean: the proa consists of a hollowed-out tree trunk that would hold people and goods, and another piece of wood was attached as a stabilizing outrigger; a simple, but robust construction that was cheap and easily made. It is probably for the same reasons that proas are still widely used all over the Pacific Ocean.

As the leading seafaring nations changed over the course of centuries – Venetian, Spaniards, Portuguese, Arabs, Chinese, Dutch – the materials remained essentially the same. Wood was cut into shape or tied together and only very rarely other materials were used for the construction of the main body of ships. This should change with the up rise of Britain after the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

New materials, new challenges

With the industrial revolution, new materials for the construction of sailing vessels became available. Also, distances became longer as the British reached out over the oceans built an Empire spanning the globe. The new needs and opportunities led to a boost in innovative designs and developments.

However, it was still wind that would carry most goods – now over thousands of miles of canals that cut Britain into navigable slices. The Thames barges are prime examples for innovative designs – easy to navigate even by as few as two men, these little sailing boats were altered from a ground plan into manifold shapes and varieties. This way, they could meet local requirements.

Offshore, the large sailing ships dominated the oceans. Among the most legendary cargo-carrying ships of that period were windjammers and clipper ships. The latter ones were most likely called that way as they allowed trade companies to clip short the time for individual passages, as they were designed to speed up the traffic between the British mother island and its outposts in India, Australia or the Americas.

Sailing goes yachting - from cargo to aristocrats

A little earlier than that, in the 16th and 17th century, the oldest indications for a new trend appear: sailing out of pleasure rather than transportation, exploration or warfare. In the Netherlands, by than a trading empire that spun the World’s seas, Europe’s largest fleet maintained a flourishing economy. The rising prosperity of Dutch merchants and their strong orientation towards maritime activities most likely caused them to start sailing as a method of entertainment.

Small sailboats that were light and easy to navigate were called “Jaght”. The modern English word “Yacht” is derived from that and the first Dutch yacht arrived in England in 1660 as a gift to King Charles I. The design stimulated a whole new approach to yachting in Britain – a rather sportive than practical one. As soon as in 1661, two more yachts had been built: “Catherine”, a second yacht to King Charles, and “Anne” for the King’s brother. With these two vessels, the King and his brother raced between Greenwich and Gravesend and back along the Thames and thereby, doing the first pleasure sailing race in history.

The first yacht club was founded in Ireland around 1720. It was called “The Water Club of Cork”, and although the original organization disappeared in the late 18th century, it was re-founded as “The Cork Yacht Club” in 1828. A few years earlier than that, in 1815, a club called “The Yacht Club” was founded in England and re-named into “The Royal Yacht Club” in 1820, when the Prince Regent – the club’s most distinguished member – became King George IV.

Golden Age of Yacht Clubs

The club bought a clubhouse in Cowes in 1824 but changed its name again in 1833 into “The Royal Yacht Squadron”. The first race of the club took place on the 10th of August 1826, accompanied by fireworks on Cowes Parade the following evening. Ever since then, with the only exceptions during the years of the World Wars, the Annual Cowes Week Regatta with fireworks has been held in August.

In 1830, there were already three royal yachting clubs in the United Kingdom: “The Royal Yacht Squadron”, “The Royal Cork Yacht Club” and “The Royal Thames Yacht Club”. In that year, the first non-British club was formed in Sweden. New York started its first club in 1844.

Over the course of the 19th century, many other clubs followed, making yachting a sport for the noble, the rich and powerful. In 1851, the schooner “America” visited England and attended a race starting from Cowes and sailing around the Isle of Wight. It bet the best British yachts and won the “Hundred Guinea Cup”, which was re-named into “America’s Cup” in honor of the ship. The America’s Cup is considered to be the oldest trophy in the World of international sports. ...move on to Part II

Further Reading

A Short History of Sailing - Part II

Wikipedia on the Age of Discovery

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