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The Evolution of the Sailboat and its effect on Culture

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The Evolution of the Sailboat and its effect on Culture


We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails."
— Bertha Calloway


In Mesopotamia, over five thousand years ago, it is thought that the first sailing vessels were used (Seidman and Mulford 22-25). Though primitive by today’s standards, a square sail acted like a modern-day spinnaker to grab the wind and run with it. As one might imagine, there was minimal control in this method. A square-rigged sail works best only if you're going where the wind is going, and this is very slow sailing. Apparent wind (the wind a moving vessel creates for itself as it moves forward through the air) completely opposes downwind sailing at a 180 degree angle. What about when the ancient Egyptians or the Romans wanted to go where the wind wasn't? Well, it was slaves to the oars! (Otherwise anchor and wait). The Vikings, on the other hand, were different. They were stubborn and slave-less, and refused to be told by the wind were they could or could not go. These sailors had square sails also, ones that could be adjusted for fullness - more curved and wind-catching when going downwind, or more flat for sailing at an angle to the wind. Furthermore, a small keel proved an ingenious addition to the sailing vessel. The flat surface running lengthwise on the very bottom of the sailboat prevented the Viking ships from slipping sideways in the water when sailing at an angle to the wind. Today, most every kind of sailboat has this feature for the same reason.

            The Vikings perfected the hull of the sailboat (Unger 81). Simultaneously, Arab sailors were perfecting the sailing vessel in a different way. From the Persian Gulf to Asia they caught annual monsoon winds with the help of a triangular sail called a Lateen (from Latin) by the Europeans (because they saw it in the Mediterranean many years after its development) (Seidman and Mulford 22-25). Trade, for the Arabs, was facilitated by the creation of this useful new type of sail, which worked like a modern day airplane wing. Speed was achieved by the ability of the Lateen rig sail to "split" the wind and feel the air on both sides. The airflow doesn't just allow for propulsion from air pushing, but more so from the area of low pressure created at the leading edge of the cloth (Seidman and Mulford 26).  Of course, the ingenious sail developed by the Arabs is the one which modern-day sailboats of all kinds employ. The Arabs no longer had to be pushed wherever the wind wanted them to do, they could sail as close-hauled as 70 degrees to the wind. Usually sailing was best at around ninety degrees (at a perpendicular angle to wherever it was coming from).

            Today's sailboats can sail about 45 degrees from the wind (Seidman and Mulford 13). What makes our sailboats today more refined than those of the Arabs thousands of years ago? The answer doesn't have to do with the sail; it has to do with the hull. Remember that while the Arabs were perfecting the sail, the Vikings of Europe were pillaging and voyaging toward the new world with keeled vessels that prevented them from slipping sideways in the water. The Viking hull was just as important advance in the evolution of the sailing ship as was the Lateen rig. But, these two peoples were busy harnessing the power of the wind on two different sides of the world. It wasn't until much later that the hull and sail were married together to make what we know as today's modern sailboat.

            In the 1800's, the efficient hull and sail were brought together to allow for "windward" sailing - or sailing close-hauled to the wind. The first sailboat of this kind was known as the Lug rig. Over two thousand years ago, the Chinese had been had junks that were also a type of lug rig. The Chinese were certainly an unmatched sailing civilization throughout history with their superior technology and navigation skills. The lug-type rig was not introduced to the western world until the later part of the eighteenth century. Today, the most popular rig by far is known as the Marconi, or Bermuda rig (developed about 200 years ago). This efficient design uses triangular sails and usually consists of a Jib and Mainsail.

From the first remains of a Mesopotamian sailboat found in modern-day Kuwait (1998 archeological dig led by Harriet Crawford) to the plundering and trading of the Vikings and Arabs, the sailing ship was central to the growth of societies around the world. The evolution of sailing and cultures seem to have been parallel and interdependent.

            Sailing has been instrumental in the development of civilizations and cultures. A complete historical description of the interplay between cultural evolution and the art of sailing would be as epic as Homer's great story of the sailor Odysseus. Literature, artwork, fishing, trade, warfare, and even language have all been influenced significantly by the sailboat, and this influence spans several millennia and many societies. Let's take a look at just a few brief examples.

            One need not look far to see how sailing facilitated the evolution of culture. As children, we all learned about Christopher Columbus sailing the ocean blue in 1492. But, did we really consider the ramifications on the history culture for not only the Europeans but for those native to the American continent? With the arrival of white Europeans by sailing vessel came certain things that changed the ways of the native peoples throughout the continent. Not only did Europeans bring disease, but also religion which the Native Americans adopted (willingly or unwillingly) and which their ancestors practice to this day. Warfare, storytelling, mythology, and artwork were all influenced greatly by the horse (which was brought from Europe by sailing ships). In the history of Native American culture, the arrival of the sailboat was most certainly and indirect turning point. There were, of course, an unimaginable number of things and ideas which had this effect: Christianity, alcohol, many types of animals, including cattle, non-indigenous plants including sugarcane, wheat, tools and weapons including iron tools and guns, and many other items which no doubt transformed the course of native-American culture.

            Sailing culture itself may also be an example of sailing affecting the evolution of culture. An example which is close-to-home for me can be found in the small whaling village of Sag Harbor on Eastern Long Island. Sailing, to this day, remains an integral part of the area. As I walk into the little local museum, the maritime history is represented through relics of tools, ship parts, Native American stories, and artwork. Some of the most interesting items in this museum are the pieces of whalebone sailors intricately carved and stained with ink. These carvings came to be known as Scrimshaw and the museum what seems like hundreds of carved pieces. It is an art-form which was absolutely a direct result of the days in which sailing was necessary in the economies of early America. Whale-boats themselves used to hunt the whales for oil were oftentimes fitted with a mast, sail, and centerboard which could be disassembled during whale hunting.

            Shipbuilding itself has been a type of art-form and facilitator of tradition throughout the ages. Guilds of the craft of shipbuilding were largely important and respected because of the importance of the product they produced. Some of the best shipbuilding craftsmen rose to aristocracy and were well-respected.

The era of from sailing as a primary means of intercontinental commerce and transport saw its end with the introduction of steamships which made transatlantic journeys between Europe and the United States. The cusp of this transition occurred just before the 1830’s, when the Black Baller sailing ships transported immigrants to the new world from Europe into New York Harbor (Bowen 3-9). It became a tradition of sorts for people to come to the docks and see the vessels off every first and sixteenth day each month. It is an image which stood at the end of an old era and the beginning of a new one - that of the steam engine. Of course, the art of sailing has lived on along with our knowledge of its long and significant history. When you call someone a sailor, the word brings with it a certain status. She who is a true sailor has mastered the wind. She has respect for it and for those who came before her in the evolution of an art-form. Culture and sailing have been intertwined throughout history. I'll go so far as to say that certain aspects of culture would not have evolved the way they did had it not been for the evolution of the sailboat.

Work Cited


Seidman, David, and Kellly Mulford. The Complete Sailor: Learning the Art of Sailing. 1st.

Camden, Maine: McGraw-Hill Professional, 1995. Print.


Bowen, Frank. A centruy of Atlantic Travel. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1930. Print.


Romola, Anderson. The Sailing-Ship: Six Thousand Years of History. London: George G.

Harrap, 1927. Print.


Unger, Richard. The Ship in the Medieval Economy: 600-1600. Montreal: McGill-Queen's

University Press, 1980. Print.


Chinky linky's picture

Very good info

Very good info

Serendip Visitor's picture

Good article

Helped on my essay. Thank you.

Serendip Visitor's picture



Anne Dalke's picture

sailing evolution

What a lovely piece—and what a strong extension from our consideration of the evolution of literature. Could you put on-line the images you included in your hard copy of this paper? (I was so struck by how “sail-like” the scrimshaw appeared….)

My questions for you have to do with the implications of this particular cultural evolution. You highlight the complexity of the history of this particular phenomenon (and suggest that all cultural artifacts have similarly complex histories). I’m wondering if there isn’t more to say about that particular moment when all the elements—hull and sail--came together. That point in your paper is curiously elided; your verbs take the evasive passive form. You say that hull and sail “were brought together to allow for ‘windward’ sailing,” that the “lug-type rig was not introduced to the western world until the later part of the eighteenth century.” Who brought ‘em together? Who did the introducing? What motivated that juxtaposition? How was it received?

More generally: what does your story add to the discussions we’ve been having in class about the evolution of culture? Does it expand the “definition” of evolution? Are you using the term simply as a synonym for change, or is your definition more technical (these phrases are taken from our course notes) evoking “random change, history dependence, differential persistence….”? What remained of history, in the innovations you trace? Wherefrom the changes? What of the “three realms nested within one another” that we’ve been looking @--the material, the cultural, the individual? Are all three dimensions included in your study? Or might they be?