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The Sailboat: A Beautiful Mode of Transportation

People have been using sailboats for over five thousand years, but this wind powered vessel has been thrown aside as steamboats and powerboats take the stage. Many people see the sailboat as slow, boring, and rather nauseating, not to mention unnecessarily hard to use. I myself used to refer to sailing as “Pure boredom, with moments of sheer terror.”

But since then I have grown to appreciate the relaxing sway of the boat, the way it gives you time to enjoy the scenery, and the real ease with which a sailboat can be handled. Dad and I drove out to Colorado not long ago and got our beautiful Com-pac 16, Sparrow. She’s amazing, and makes me feel even more that we need to share the beauty of sailing with the unaware world!
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Let’s start with the invention of the sailboat in 3000 B.C. This whole thing was started by the Mesopotamians, making an easy way to get to the middle of lakes for fishing. As they had been using rowboats prior, they could not get out too far from shore. Their early boats were propelled by square sails, allowing them to catch a lot of wind. Because of these sails, however, they had to sail in the direction that the wind was blowing. They had to row to go another direction, or else anchor and wait for the wind to change. Another problem was that the wind would blow them around, off their course. But whatever the issues, the invention of the sailboat revolutionized transport in Mesopotamia.

By 1 A.D., the sailboat had spread throughout the world. Different peoples had their own ways of doing things; their own successes and their own failures. All the way out in China, the problem of getting blown around was solved. The Vikings are often given credit for the invention of the keel, but in truth it was the Chinese, with their Junk boats.

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(This adorable sailboat that my Dad made for my little cousin is actually a great example of a Gaff sail.)

A Junk boat is a Chinese sailboat that looks, save its square (Gaff) sails, no different than any other. There is a huge difference, however, hidden in the hull. Not unlike the modern-day keel, the first Junk keels were rather narrow, long strips several feet deep that stretched all the way across the hull. This prevented the wind from blowing the boat off course, and it made sailing much more easy.

In 700, the Vikings made their famous keels. They weren’t the first to the invention, but  they did make their own innovation in the way of sailing. Their sail was more rounded, and they could go in more general directions with ease. 

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A Latten sail.

 At the same time the Arabs were working on their sail. They came up with the one most commonly used today: the triangular sail called a lateen. It wasn’t nearly as hard to use as the square sails, and they could go to 70° toward the wind. They used their sailboats mainly for trade.

The keel and lateen weren’t united until the 1800’s, making the ultimate combination, the modern sailboat. Now sailors could go 45° toward the wind (the keel helped in that area too), and they didn’t get blown off course. Sailboats were solving tons of travel problems. Crossing land by covered wagon was exhausting, hard, and slow. You had to feed your mules or horses, and stop to let them rest. But in a boat, across oceans, your sails can carry you day and night. All you’re feeding them on is wind, which isn’t hard to come by. The sailboat was, and is, the ultimate traveling device. 

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This brings us right up to this year, 2015, when Dad and I got a sailboat. Her name is Sparrow, and she is beautiful. She’s a tiny 16-footer, with an 8-foot beam. Her corners are rounded with brass, and the portholes shine with the same stuff. She’s just perfect. Some of you, of course, will still choose to believe that there are many ways of moving about the globe that are better. So for you I admit that a sailboat isn’t totally flawless. It has one slight problem: Good luck skiing.

3 thoughts on “The Sailboat: A Beautiful Mode of Transportation”

  1. Enjoyed the history lesson. I see from your Dad’s FB post that you are back near water. I loved sailing with you a couple of years ago. (It was great seeing all of you this past week.)

  2. Little Sis,
    What an informative and persuading expose’ on sailing. You make me want to at least try it before I make up my mind. Your boat is truly beautiful with it’s brass and beautiful red sails. I think it’s terrific that you and Dad have something you share interest in and can have fun doing together. Enjoy!

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