Horizons: Sails

June 13th, 2011 by | No comments

Here’s a question for you: How old are the sails anyway?

The proto-Austronesian words for sail, lay(r), and other rigging parts date to about 3000 BC when this group began their remarkable Pacific expansion.  The earliest known depictions of sails are from ancient Egypt around 3200 BCE, where reed boats sailed upstream against the River Nile‘s current. Ancient Sumerians were using square rigged sailing boats at about the same time, and it is believed they established sea trading routes as far away as the Indus valley. Greeks and Phoenicians began trading by ship by around 1,200 BCE. Square sails mounted on yardarms perpendicular to the boat’s hull are very good for downwind sailing; they dominated in the ancient Mediterranean and spread to Northern Europe, and were independently invented in China and Ecuador. Although fore-and-aft rigs have become more popular on modern yachts, square sails continued to power full-rigged ships through the Age of Sail and to the present day. Triangular fore-and-aft rigs were invented in the Mediterranean as single yarded lateen sails and independently in the Pacific as the more efficient bi sparred crab claw sail, and continue to be used throughout the world. During the 16th-19th centuries other fore-and-aft sails were developed in Europe, such as the spritsail, gaff rig, jib/genoa/staysail, and Bermuda rig, improving European upwind sailing ability.

In an interesting recent development, an elderly trawler, TS Pelican, was fitted with what are thought to have been the unorthodox riggings used by the Barbary pirates in the 16th century. The resultant performance has been remarkable, with the Pelican sailing, at speed, over 20 degrees nearer the wind than any square rigger.

If you want to know more, including the parts of a sail and common materials, check out the wiki page.

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