For thousands of years, coastal areas have been synonymous with sailing, or using sails to catch the wind and propel a boat across the water. It’s not clear when sailing originated, but artistic representations of the activity have been discovered dating to the 6th millennium BCE. Archaeologists believe sailing probably rose alongside other advancements such as agriculture and animal husbandry as people became less nomadic and began to form large communities. Many early civilizations were located in coastal areas or along the banks of major rivers and lakes. As such, sailing for the purposes of catching fish, transporting goods for trade or engaging in warfare would’ve been an obvious innovation.
The sails of early vessels were primitive compared to modern craft. The art and science of sailing accelerated during the Middle Ages (approximately 1100 to 1450 AD) when exploration and commercial trading between continents expanded dramatically. During this era, different types of sails and rigging were developed, allowing for larger ships with a greater range of travel. Most of these innovations are still in use in modern sailing.
A sail is a type of airfoil, or a curved structure designed to use air currents to help propel a boat or ship. Other airfoils can include airplane wings, propellers, turbines or rotors. Even a simple kite someone might fly on a beach or in a park is a type of airfoil. Nature created airfoils through the design of birds’ feathers or the wing shape of a flying insect. It’s possible, even probable, that early humans were imitating designs seen in nature when they began experimenting with sailing. Perhaps watching certain marine animals, like By-the-WInd-Sailors, may have been the inspiration for putting sails on boats and allowing the force of wind to move the craft.
Sails are designed to utilize different kinds of wind force, but aerodynamic drag is the most useful and efficient for sailing. This is created when the wind pushes against the body of the sail, inflating it into an airfoil shape and propelling the boat forward. If the wind is behind the boat, it is easier to create aerodynamic drag and enable forward momentum. If the wind is coming from the sides or front of the boat, different sails can be used or repositioned through the use of ropes and lines to funnel its flow to the rear of the vessel and create propulsion.
Although sailing was most certainly developed for practical reasons, the joy of skipping across the waves on a stiff wind lured more and more people to practice it as a leisure activity. Again, it’s not known exactly when recreational sailing became fashionable, but cultures as far back as ancient Egypt produced countless images of people sailing where the principle intent seemed to be simple enjoyment. Today, recreational sailing can take various forms:
Day sailing: Smaller craft are used for short excursions without the need for overnight or longterm accommodation. Day sailing is probably the most common form of recreational sailing.
Coastal cruising: Longer trips are made up or down a coastline but still within the relative safety of nearshore waters. This type of sailing usually lasts multiple days.
Blue water cruising: Larger vessels are used for sailing into the open sea. This type of sailing is usually a long-term endeavor and the boat will require more space for sleeping and provisions.
Passagemaking: This type of sailing involves travel over extremely long distances without the vessel stopping to resupply. Sail boats are uniquely qualified for this type of travel as they do not need to use precious space for engines and the necessary fuel. Circumnavigation of the earth has been accomplished almost entirely by sailing vessels for this reason. Some teenagers, most notably Robin Lee Graham, made history by sailing around the world alone.
Racing: Sailboat racing has different forms and can be either a fun pastime or a serious sport. Most competitive racing utilizes larger vessels such as yachts and can occur in nearshore waters, open water or even involve circumnavigation of the earth. Competitions using smaller craft are known as dinghy races – a dinghy being a small open-topped sailboat.
There are numerous organizations dedicated to sailing. The United States Sailing Association and the International Sailing Federation are two of the larger organizations. There are also numerous Oregon-based sailing clubs and associations, including the Oregon State University’s Sailing Club, the Oregon Women’s Sailing Association and the Small Yacht Sailing Club of Oregon.
Sixteen And Alone At Sea: In 1965, a sixteen-year-old named Robin Lee Graham made history by sailing around the world all by himself. Here is the amazing tale which inspired three books and a movie!
Studying At Sea: Plenty of young people leave home for learning experiences – but how about going to sea to learn? Two Oceanscape Network youth volunteers explore the blue water research vessel Ocean Watch and discover what it’s like to live – and learn – at sea.
Time Traveler: Welcome Aboard the Lady Washington: The Lady Washington is more than a working replica of the Pacific Northwest’s most famous “tall ship.” It’s also a floating classroom, educating thousands every year about the adventure of sailing.