Historians love to debate...a lot. When there is scant historical evidence of something, historians tend to make assumptions and insist that their idea is right. Other historians will make different assumptions and insist that their idea is right instead. Most of what we know about history, even just a few centuries ago, is like this. Sailing is no exception to the rule.
Right off the bat, we want to tell you that nobody really knows where sailing originated. Historians have made some pretty good guesses, but that is all they are. They are just guesses. As we were putting together this page on the history of sailing, we had to choose what we believed was most likely the case. We know that there are some historians that will disagree with us. However, we can assure you, that if you get past the first couple of centuries of sailing history, everything becomes a whole lot clearer. We know what happened from the 1600s onward, but before...not so much.
So, with that out of the way, let's dive into the brief history of sailing.
The Earliest Sail Boats
Yes. We are diving right into that debate. Nobody knows where sailing ships originated, but it is highly likely to be one of these locations:
- Persian Gulf
- South China Sea
Boats have been around for tens of thousands of years. It is one of the oldest forms of transport. However, sailing ships are a little bit more recent.
There is evidence that the very first sailing ships started to pop up around 3,000 BC, although there is also some evidence that they were being independently developed around the Mediterranean area at the same time, although archaeologists have only been able to determine that those ships went back to about 2,000 BC.
Those early ships mostly wouldn't have been straight sailboats, though. The sails were more for an extra boost of power. It is unlikely that sailing tech would have been nailed at this point. The bulk of the ship's movement power would have come from people that were rowing pretty intensely. Although, that being said, there is also a small amount of evidence that the Ancient Egyptians did have straight sailing ships, although they would have been slow and barely covered any distance. They were, mostly, for getting from one part of the Nile to the other.
One of the great things for the various budding civilizations in 3000BC was the fact that sailing opened up more routes for them. They were no longer limited to traveling short distances. A well-constructed sailship could take them across vast expanses of ocean, and that is exactly what the Austronesian people did. These were the guys around the South China Sea.
The Austronesians started to spread sailing around the Asian continent, and there is even some evidence that their tech managed to get into Europe. Of course, they were conquering other civilizations at the same time, but it was sailing that had the greatest impact on the mass movement of people. Sailing literally changed the world.
At this point, we do want to point out that some of this early sailing history is still evident in the various smaller cultures that the Austronesians headed to, particularly around Polynesia. Around 1500BC, the Austronesians developed something known as the 'Crab Claw' sail. It is a pretty basic design, but it is one that worked ridiculously well, and it is this sail that allowed them to travel vast distances. The 'Crab Claw' sail is still used on many smaller sailboats in the areas that they headed to.
The Development Of Larger Sailing Ships
You would think that larger sailing ships came much later, but no.
The first larger sailing ships started to appear around 1000BC.
These were absolute beasts. They could handle hundreds of passengers at once (we can't imagine that they were too comfortable), and they had up to 7 different sails. These larger ships evolved the 'Crab Claw' sail idea a little bit. They were now known as 'Tanja sails'.
This is another period in history where it is tough to determine exactly who had the idea of these larger sailing ships. We know that they were used in the South China Sea and by The Greeks, but historians still fiercely debate who had the idea first. Maybe, one day, we will unearth an old sailing ship from this time period. it may give us more of a clue.
Of course, over the next several hundred years, The Greeks, The Romans, and a variety of other ancient civilizations would be working incredibly hard to refine this technology. The world became a lot smaller, and it wasn't uncommon to see epic sailing ships traversing through waters throughout the planet. Although, many of the larger sailing ships, particularly those used for war, still required people to do a bit of rowing. The sails weren't quite powerful enough in all situations.
We want to leave the early history of sailing ships there. We could talk forever about the development of these early ships. However, the evidence for the earliest ships is minimal and, as we said, a lot of people still fiercely debate where they originated from. Instead, we want to zip ahead to something a bit more modern. The 700s onwards.
We don't think a history of any sort of seafaring would be complete without mentioning The Vikings. They are the quintessential sea explorers, after all. Although, the Vikings didn't make huge advances to the world of sailing ships.
About 2,000 years prior, wooden planks were invented. This is what allowed sailing ships to get massive. The Vikings took advantage of this technology, and all of their ships were long ships constructed using planks.
The main thing that the Vikings brought to the table was the square sail. Most Viking longships used a single square sail, with the bulk of the power coming from rowing. However, the square sail went and had a massive impact on the development of other sailing ships.
The Growth Of Sailing Ships
Up until the 1200s, sailing ships were pretty tough to control. There were rudimentary control systems, but nothing crazy. Enter, the Song Dynasty in China. The Song Dynasty developed ships known as junks, which were designed to travel along the Chinese coast. However, they had features that hadn't really been seen in sailing ships up until this point.
Those junks had water-tight compartments, which could help to prevent sinking. However, the most important feature was the addition of tillers and rudders in the center of the vessel. The tiller and the rudder made the ship a lot easier to control. We suppose that this was something that was ridiculously important when sailing along the Chinese coast. You would have needed to have an easy-to-control boat through some of those tight spots.
It was around this time that sailing ships really started to be used properly for war. Obviously, ships had been doing battle throughout the centuries (particularly during the Roman and Greek time periods). However, the fact that these ships could be controlled easier than ever meant that they made great war vessels. In fact, it was the development of the centrally-located tiller and rudder that is credited with the spread of the Mongols throughout Asia, particularly during the invasion of Japan.
The Age Of Discovery
In the 1400s, the Age of Discovery began. It was here that explorers, mostly European, decided to give exploring the world a pretty good go. This was all made possible by something that happened in the 14th Century.
In the 14th Century, the Carrack ship was developed. This was a four-masted sailing ship. Up until this point, most sea-going vessels would need to stop for supplies every so often. Not the Carrack ship. The Carrack could be loaded with all sorts of supplies. However, the most important thing about the Carrack was the fact that it could tackle the high seas. It was able to deal with massive waves, and it barely faltered while doing that. This made the ship perfect for those that wanted to head further afield, particularly the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.
It was the Carrack that helped Christopher Columbus accidentally reach The Americas. Although let's be fair, The Vikings had managed to get there a few centuries prior with lower-quality sailing ships.
The Development Of The Galleon
When most people think about the ships of the Age of Discovery, they think of the Galleon. When they think of epic naval battles, they think of the Galleon.
The Galleon was a sailing ship that appeared in the 16th to 18th Centuries. The development of the Galleon was so important that this time period started to become referred to as 'The Age of Sail'.
The Galleon ships of the time period boasted multiple decks. They had three massive sails, and they could be used for a whole host of purposes. Some of the Galleons were shipping immigrants across the seas. Others were being loaded up with cargo for trade. Plenty more were being loaded up with cannons and other weaponry to allow various countries the ability to control the seas.
While the Carrack was a brilliant vessel for the time, the Galleon was even better. The lower hull meant that the ship was a lot more stable in the water. It was also a whole lot easier to control. The fact that there was a huge amount of space in the ship also helped.
The Galleon stuck around until around 1850.
Other Ships Of The Time Period
Shipbuilders of the time period were constantly refining the design of the Galleon. This resulted in a variety of different vessels. This included schooners (small ships which used fore-and-aft sails), brigantines, and barques. Although, to be honest, other than using a different sail design and being slightly smaller, none of these were really that distinguishable from the galleon. It is evident that the galleon was a tremendous design that people really wanted to lean on.
The one ship type that does stand out from this time period is the clipper. The clipper was built for speed. Not for comfort. The idea of the clipper was to get cargo from one place to another exceedingly quickly. They were mostly used as a trading ship between the United Kingdom and China.
Iron Hulled Ships
For a while, the galleon and the related ship designs were going pretty strong. They were exploring the world. Trading goods. Doing battle. However, in the 1850s, we saw a massive change to the design of the ship.
Up until the 1850s, ships were only constructed from wood. In the 1850s, the ship's hull started to be constructed with iron. These iron-hulled ships mostly used square and fore-and-aft sails. You may find them referred to as windjammer boats. They were mostly used for transporting goods around the globe.
The problem was that the iron-hulled ships were starting to appear at the end of the Age of Sail. The world was starting to introduce steamships. For a while, it wasn't that economical to run those steamships, so iron-hulled ships won out. However, as steam power started to become cheaper, people were ditching the idea of the sailing ship altogether. The only people running sailing ships were those that were on strictly limited budgets.
The one ship that managed to get through the steamship age was the County of Peebles, a sailing ship constructed in Scotland by Barclay Cule Shipbuilders.
The County of Peebles was exceedingly fast. It boasted a four-mast design, and it was able to hold a huge amount of cargo. The design of this ship was copied, and sail was able to continue for commercial purposes up until the early 20th century (although, this particular ship was sunk in 1899)
Modern Sailing Ships
In the early 20th Century, the sailing ship was nearing its end. It was no longer economical to run them. People wanted their ships to be fast and comfortable. Sailing ships weren't quite cutting it, and by the 1910s, sailing ships had pretty much disappeared from commercial transportation.
Of course, sailing ships didn't disappear completely. While they are not great for the purposes that they were originally designed for, sailing ships are still used extensively for recreational purposes, particularly racing (we have entire Olympic events based around them!), they are also used extensively in the fishing industry, at least for those fishing close to the coast.
The use of sailing ships for recreational purposes isn't all that new either. This is something that originally developed in England in 1610. The King, at the time, decided that he loved sailing ships. As a result, various sailing clubs dedicated to racing started to appear. Some of these clubs are still around.
If you head to many smaller island nations, particularly the places where sailing was initially developed, you will likely find a wealth of people still using smaller sailing ships, some with designs that are not too dissimilar to the sailing ships from thousands of years prior. If you are interested in the history of sailing, then taking a trip to any of the islands around the Polynesia area will give you an insight into how ships were built back then.
Obviously, there is no hope that sailing ships are ever going to come back properly. They are only ever going to be used for recreational and basic subsistence purposes nowadays. However, if you ever look at a huge ship sailing through the sea, know that the design of that ship has likely been influenced by the sailing ships of the past, whether it is the hull design, the rudder, or the tiller placement. So, even now, sailing is impacting the way that boats work. This will continue for centuries to come.