History of Sailing


Animal skins were used as sails for the earliest boats and rafts. The Egyptians and other ancient people wove reeds together in mats to make sails, but the Egyptians were also the first to make cloth sails as early as 3300 B.C. Great sailors of the Mediterranean region like the Phoenicians sailed under cloth sails. Over the centuries, sails woven from a variety of fibers, such as hemp, flax, ramie, and jute, were sailmakers’ favorites; but flax fiber was the primary material for sails throughout the age of exploration (approximately 1450-1650). Cotton gradually replaced flax as cultivation and processing of cotton increased. It was the victory of the racing yacht America in 1851 that crowned the cotton sail as supreme. This United States yacht defeated 14 British vessels in a sailing race around the Isle of Wight off the south coast of England and was the source of the name for the America’s Cup Race, the greatest yacht race in the world.

Sailboats themselves began as single logs and simple rafts. More sophisticated shapes for hulls that would cut through the water grew out of military use, but also from merchant sailors who built extensive trading networks crisscrossing the Mediterranean Sea. When day-sailers were built for fishing and recreation, they were essentially miniature copies of naval ships like schooners and cutters. The elaborate yachts that were the playthings of royal families and the wealthy also copied naval sailing ships. By about 1850, a new engineering discipline called naval architecture was begun to design efficient hulls and other parts of sailboats according to the laws of physics and engineering and architectural principles. Sails and rigging and their effects on the speed of sailboats were essentially ignored until 1920. Since that time, aerodynamics have been used in their design. Today, modifications to complex craft like the boats that participate in the America’s Cup Race are based on wind-tunnel testing and many other sophisticated analyses applied to boats, water, wind, and sails.

In parts of the world where waters are frozen for most of the year, iceboats were developed to skim the sailboat over the ice by mounting it on runners or blades. Archaeologists have found evidence of iceboats in Scandinavia dating back to 2000 B.C. Eyewitness accounts from Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Baltic Coast countries like Latvia and Russia are much more recent, with the earliest from the seventeenth century. In the United States, the first known iceboat in the New World traveled up and down the Hudson River in New York in 1790. Like their warm-water counterparts, iceboats that race are called ice yachts, and ice yachting as an acknowledged sport dates from the nineteenth century.


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