Sailing is an ancient craft. Together with the skills of people mastering it, sailing has undergone centuries of evolution.
The prototype of a sail originated hundreds of years ago, during the old days when people were just starting to build boats and venturing out into the open sea. In the beginning, a stretched animal skin served as a sail. The person navigating the vessel had to hold and orient it with both hands in relation to the wind.
The exact timing of when the idea of reinforcing the sail with a mast and rails appeared is not known. Nevertheless, already on the most ancient images of the ships of the Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut one can see wooden masts and yards. There are also a backstay and forestay (cables that keep the mast from falling), halyards (tackle for raising and lowering the sails) and other rigging.
But where did the first sailboat appear and who was the one to construct it?
The appearance of a sailing ship dates back to prehistoric times. A lot of evidence indicates that the first large sailing ships appeared in Egypt, and the Nile was the first high-water river on which river shipping began to develop.
Every year from July to November, the mighty river's banks overflowed, flooding the whole country with its waters. Villages and cities were cut off from each other like islands. Therefore, ships were a vital necessity for the Egyptians. In the economic life of the country and communication between people, they played a much more significant role than wheeled carts.
However, it is worth mentioning that even earlier examples of fishing sailboats from Kuwait appear, as well as Austronesian outrigger canoes known to have sailed for vast distances.
Boats of Egypt
One of the earliest types of Egyptian ships that appeared in about 5 thousand years BC, was a barge.
It is known to modern scholars for several models installed in ancient temples. Since Egypt is very poor in forests, papyrus was widely used to build the first ships. Features of this material determined the design and shape of those.
Ancient Egyptian ships were crescent-shaped boats connected from bunches of papyrus with a bow and stern bent upwards. The hull was pulled together by cables to give the structure strength. Later, when regular trade with the Phoenicians established, and Lebanese cedar began to flow into Egypt in large quantities, this tree became an essential material in shipbuilding.
The idea of what types of ships were being built then is given by the wall reliefs of the necropolis near Sakkara, dating to the middle of 3000 BC. These compositions realistically display certain stages of construction of the boardwalk. The hulls of the ships, which did not have a keel (in ancient times it was a girder lying at the base of the boat), or frames (transverse curved bars, ensuring the strength of the sides and bottom), were made out of simple billets and caulked by papyrus. Ropes that tightened the vessel around the perimeter of the sheathing strengthened the hull.
Such vessels hardly possessed good seaworthiness. However, they were quite suitable for sailing the river. The direct sail used by the Egyptians allowed them to sail only in windy weather. The rigging was attached to a bipod mast and both its legs mounted perpendicular to the centre line of the vessel. They were tightly connected in the upper part. A backstay and forestay were holding the mast in the working position – thick cables coming from the stern and bow, and legs supported it towards the sides. A square-rigged sail was used for the wind to push the boat forward from the back. The rectangular sail was mounted on two shafts. In a crosswind, the mast was hastily removed.
Later, by about 2600 BC, the two-legged mast was replaced by the one-legged mast used today. It facilitated sailing and for the first time, allowed the ship to maneuver. However, a rectangular sail was an unreliable tool that could only be used in fair winds. The main engine of the vessel was the muscular power of the rowers. The Egyptians own a crucial improvement in the oar – the invention of oarlocks. It immediately allowed to increase the stroke power and speed of the vessel. It is hard to believe, but selected rowers on the ships of the pharaohs did 26 strokes per minute, which allowed them to reach a speed of 12 km per hour.
The ancient Egyptians were not good sailors. On their ships, they did not dare to go into the open sea. However, along the coast, their merchant ships traveled far.
The Phoenicians made the next step in the development of sailing at the beginning of 3 thousand BC. Unlike the Egyptians, the Phoenicians had excellent building material for their ships in abundance. Their country stretched along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Vast cedar forests grew there starting not far from the coastline. Already in ancient times, the Phoenicians learned to make high-quality hollowed boats and bravely explored the open water.
A marine vessel is significantly different from a regular boat; its construction requires its own structural solutions. The most important discoveries along this path, which determined the entire subsequent history of shipbuilding, belong to the Phoenicians. Perhaps the skeletons of the animals led them to the idea of installing stiffeners, which were covered with boards. This way for the first time in the history of sailing, frames were applied, which are still widely used. In the same way, the Phoenicians first built a keeled ship (initially two barrels connected at an angle served as a keel). The keel immediately gave the boat stability and allowed to go on long and demanding journeys. All these innovations were the decisive basis for the rapid development of shipbuilding and determined the appearance of all ships that followed.
From the middle of 2 thousand BC, the heyday of the Phoenician cities began, owing their prosperity to Mediterranean trade. Phoenician ships became a bridge between countries. In all directions, they crossed the sea and returned, laden with treasures. In distant lands, they founded their trading posts and colonies, which over time also turned into flourishing cities. Their trade routes extended from India to Africa and Britain. In addition to merchant ships, the Phoenicians built many warships equipped with powerful rams.
They were the first to think about how to increase the speed of the ship. At a time when the sail played only a supporting role, in battle and during a chase, the vessel relied primarily on oars. Thus, the speed of the ship depended directly on the number of rowers.
First, the length of the ship was chosen based on the desired number of oars. However, it was impossible to increase it indefinitely. The solution was in the construction of vessels with several rows of oars. Later three-tier ships appeared – triremes, which proved to be very light on the move.
Following the example of the Phoenicians, all the sea people of the Mediterranean began to build boats strong enough to last through rough conditions. As shipbuilding spread, the vessels continued adapting to the needs of nations and the regions where they lived. Sailing, as we know it today, however, is attributed to the evolution of the hull design. Nevertheless, sails have changed drastically, replacing natural materials like cotton and hemp with synthetic ones, such as polyester and nylon.
From the unclear moment of invention until recent days, sailing is continuously evolving and continues to be a craft of bridling the water and winds.