The Evolution of Sailing Technology

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No one knows exactly how sailing started although it’s surely been going on for years now. However, the way we sail now is very different from how we used to sail a hundred years ago, this is because the systems of transportation have evolved since ancient times. The transformation of how human’s travel and transport goods is greatly related to technological advancements in the field of transportation. Therefore, the ways we navigate around the seas have changed from celestial navigation to GPS technology. Hence, this paper is going to capture different technological advancement and designs of sailboats which impacted the world.

The first sailing boats were simple with a square-rigged reed and also had one four-sided papyrus sail which was attached to a pole. These boats were used on the Nile River by the ancient civilized such as the Greeks, Egyptians and the Romans. Many skilled practitioners and different cultures have added to the advancement in ways of sailing over the millennia (Singer et al., 24). For instance, the Polynesians sailors constructed canoes which they used to colonize islands, they used sticks to navigate. The Asian community such as Indians, Chinese and Arabs also had prehistoric traditional ways of sailing. Since the importance of navigating and sailing increased, the ancient cultures started innovating and advancing the technology of sailing.

As a result, they came up with steering oar which permitted the construction of more superior boats. This type of boats was basically a lever which was an oversized board or an oar attached in the middle of a ship on the starboard at the stern. This kind of innovation facilitated the person who steers the ship to pilot it in a more accurate manner, thus making the boat more stable and safe. Steering oar was used by Viking ships and also the smaller boats used it to utilize the steering oar. The innovation of a stern-mounted rudder was accredited to Chinese who are believed to have come up with the thoughts of attaching maneuverable steering machinery at the back of a hull of a ship (Fuss et al., 34). This happened both during and before the first century AD. However, it took other western civilization thousand years to attach it to their ships.

Another advancement of navigating that was invented in ancient history was the use of celestial bodies such as the stars to navigate. The ability to navigate through the sea at night through a featureless landscape is still a frightening experience for the inexperienced, but the fact that ancient societies were able to navigate is a testament to human ingenuity. The method used by ancient mariners to pilot without the sight of a land or in darkness is what was referred to as celestial navigation. This method required angular measurement to be taken between the horizon and the heavenly bodies and also accurate timekeeping in order maintain the ship on course. The records of the written practice can be traced back to the mythological text of Homer’s Odyssey which was put on paper nearly 3000 years ago (International Maritime Association of the Mediterranean et al., 41). In the narrative nymph Calypso advises the hero Ulysses to ensure that the constellation of the stars which are known as Ursa Major, Bear and the Big Dipper was on his left side at the same time he should keep on watching the position of several other constellations to aid in his position.

The keel is an advancement of the designs of sailboat used in the ancient history; it entails a structural beam that stretches from the ship’s bow to its stern and assembles lower than the rest of the hull, the intrepid Norse sailing men who are also known as the Vikings became the first people to invent the keel. Since their sailing ships were square-rigged, they were likely to make a lot of leeways whenever they tacked close to the wind.  Therefore, the inclusion of a keel obstructed this lateral movement hence increasing the speed and also made the Viking ships more stable.  At first, keels were small and thus did not boost the current of air in the boat with a great margin. However, the keel in the modern boats is quite deep therefore restricting yachts from sailing in areas with shallow water (World Environmental and Water Resources Congress et al., 67). Nonetheless, the invention of fixed keels has made the process of designing for the stability of modern boats much easier. It is believed that the keel lowers the center of gravity by adding ballast to the boats thus preventing them from capsizing. Yachts used for racing uses a canting keel to ensure right momentum in order to keep the yacht in an upright manner.

The invention of the lateen sail was one of the major advancement of the designs of the sailboats in the history of sailing technology. The lateen was also known as the Latin-rig sail. It is a triangular sail that is mounted at an angle and runs in a fore-and-aft direction. Enabled with a maneuver known as tacking, the sail facilitates boats to navigate to windward in a zigzag manner. Even though its exact origin is not identified, the lateen sail still remains as the first and earliest fore and aft rigged sail recognized. It was also used in Greece during the first century BC. The lateen sail is supposed to have been introduced to the Mediterranean area by Persian or Arabic sailors (Workman, 31). However, the Polynesians also created a mastless lateen rigged sail which was quite different in terms of its construction from what was used in the Mediterranean. In addition, the lateen sail successfully allowed the introduction of the Age of Discovery.

Later on, a carrack ship was invented which was the first ship to complete the first full circumnavigation of the world. For it to make the voyage, it took the Spanish expedition two captains and almost four years. It was reported that the Portuguese captain Ferdinand Magellan, who at first led the expedition, started the journey from Spain in 1519 and unfortunately died in the Philippines in 1521. Therefore, the other captain Juan Sebastian returned back the carrack ship Victoria which was the only one among the five ships that went for the expedition that survived the trip back to Spain in 1522. Carrack ships were developed by Genoan sailors during the 15th century for commercial use. They were equipped with spacious cargo holds that made them suitable for long distance exploration. They were also significant in advancing the European colonial expansion leading up to the Age of Discovery (Australasian Port et al., 27). Ships sailing on the ocean that were too big to be stable were equipped with carracks which were square-rigged on the fore and main masts and lateen-rigged on the mizzenmast.

The invention of the carrack was not the last design of the ship, however, faster ships like the clippers succeeded it and even reduced the duration it will take to transport goods and people across the world. Moreover, the advancement of the designs of ships continued and sooner they created the engine which was a marine technology. Initially, marine engines were steam powered and were modified to be used by ships after Thomas Newcomen invented the first commercially successful engine in 1712. In 1802, an engineer known as William Symington constructed the world’s first applicable steamboat known as the Charlotte Dundas. The first trip by steamboat across Atlantic occurred 17 years later in 1819 when another ship known as Savannah sailed from Savannah, Georgia in America to Liverpool, England. However, advancement of sailing technology continued during the 19th century and successfully resulted in the invention of diesel-powered engines which overtook the steam-powered engines (Singer et al., 28). The main aim of technology was to enable ships to sail in the sea at a consistent speed even when winds or sailing conditions were unfavorable.

Years later, there was the introduction of Emergency Position-indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) which made navigation a considerable safer experience. This form of advancement in sailing technology traces sources that correspond with the Cospas-Sarsat provision which is a global satellite system that is used for search and rescue (SAR) operations. Even though this can be activated by hand, EPIRBs offers an extra step to protection in disastrous circumstances in a way that they become automatically activated, for instance when a boat sinks. In such a disaster, the beacons turn on an alarm which is observed by a global system or satellite that facilitates the efforts to rescue and find survivors (Fuss et al., 37). Referring to the Cospas-Sarsat service, from the time it was invented in 1979 the distress radio beacon has helped in saving thousands of people who are in suffering situations.

Considering all the historical navigational technologies mentioned, the most suitable way to identify the current position of your boat is by being equipped with a GPS unit. Global Positioning System operates basically in a similar manner as Sat Nav which directs the captain throughout the journey; however, its receivers have enabled navigation to depend less on paper charts and thus be dependent on electric ones. These receivers are important while navigating since they provide locations and information of the current time during all weather conditions all around the globe as so long as there is no obstruction of the line of sight to more than three GPS satellites (Singer et al., 41). The use of GPS receivers is said to have replaced the ancient form of sailing by using the stars to using heavenly bodies which are manmade.

Another major advancement in the designs of sailboats was the introduction of the internet on board. This means that it is now possible to login into your accounts and continue working or browsing while you travel through a boat overseas. However, this may be very expensive as compared to when on lands. The availability of information has now been enabled at high seas with the introduction of satellite internet options which are assessable miles away from terrestrial and also Wi-Fi with high speed from onshore hotspots that can be conveyed through a mobile phone (Workman, 23). However, one of the biggest challenges is that the price is usually high and not always affordable.

The amount of money used to keep to you connected may vary depending on your desire for data. According to research, it is estimated that the cost of setting up a satellite internet can range from $2950 to over $15,500. The monthly tariffs can go for around $50 for email and more if you are a heavy user. Moreover, it is obvious that cost will definitely decrease as more and more innovations arise and even enable sailors to continue being connected to their loved ones during their journey or even stream videos (Australasian Port et al., 13). This is an indication that we are in a modern world which was only foretold by science fiction.

In summary, we can conclude that it was an extensive process of gradual changes and innovations that have got us where we are today. It is obvious that an airplane wing operates using the same principle as a sail; therefore all those years of working on boats laid the bases for human flight. It is clear that airplanes are now returning the favor, for instance, a mainsail which resembles a spaceship more than a sailboat is made of rigid plastic and is called a wing sail. The fact whether these sails have any ordinary future for the average sailor remains to be seen, but its proof that there is still plenty of room for innovation.

Figure1: GPS navigation system

Figure2: Picture of first steam boat


Figure 3: Illustration of a celestial navigation by stars

Figure4: Blueprint of canoe boats


Work Cited

Australasian Port, Harbour &. Offshore Engineering Conference, et al., editors. First Australasian Port, Harbour & Offshore Engineering Conference, 1986: Sydney, 29 September-2 October 1986 : Preprints of Papers. The Institution, 1986.

Fuss, F. K., et al. The Impact of Technology on Sport II. Taylor & Francis/Balkema, 2008.

International Maritime Association of the Mediterranean, et al., editors. Sustainable Maritime Transportation and Exploitation of Sea Resources: Proceedings of the 14th International Congress of the International Maritime Association of Mediterranean (IMAM), Genova, Italy, 13-16, 2011. CRC Press, 2012.

Singer, Charles, et al. A History of Technology. 1954.

Workman, Robert B. Float Planes & Flying Boats: The U.S. Coast Guard and Early Naval Aviation. Naval Institute Press, 2012.

World Environmental and Water Resources Congress, et al. Restoring Our Natural Habitat: Proceedings of the World Environmental and Water Resources Congress 2007, May 15-19, 2007, Tampa, Florida, USA. American Society of Civil Engineers, 2007. Open WorldCat,

November 13, 2023


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