History of the Sail
It will never be known when the first people set a sail. All that can be given is an approximate date for the earliest evidence of sail. At present this is provided by a small clay model found in southern mesopotamia which shows what may have been a mast step and also the means of fixing shrouds. The date of the model is about 3,500 B.C. found in southern Egypt. How long before these vague dates the sail was used cannot be known - it may have been several thousand years.
The square sail and its associated rigging was developed in the east and the Mediterranean in competition, as a means of propulsion, with the paddle and the pivoted oar. Ships grew in size, sails grew in area, and rigging in complexity, the problem being to give adequate strength to rigs composed of fragile sail fabrics and ropes. Square-sailed craft spread over the Aegean and the open Mediterranean between Egypt and Crete, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. The records that have survived of the early sea-going sailors are very sparse: Cretans, Egyptians, Greeks rowed and sailed over the summer seas of these areas, but even the PHoenecians, who rounded Africa and may have reached Britain, left little record of their sailing techniques.
When the Mediterranean had become a Roman lake it was dominated in war by the galleys, which carried a square sail for auxiliary propulsion, and in trade by the biggest ships yet built, the grain ships propelled by a single large square sail on the main mast and a second small sail forward to give some assistance to the vessels lumbering manoeuverability. By this time men may have been using sail for six thousand years.
When Julius Caesar reached Gaul and Britain he found sail being used in this dim north western area where civilization petered out. But curiously enough yet further north, where the vikings great tradition of seamanship was incubating, the kind of hull and steering arrangements capable of making use of sail in the more southern coasts of Europe facing the Atlantic appears to have declined. Neither the Anglo-Saxons nor the later peoples of the Migration period seem to have used sail in their crossings to the offshore island of Britain.
While the Viking galleys with their single square sail reached the degree of performance still to be admired, in the Mediterranean a revolution had occurred in the means of sail setting and handling. The Arabs had created an empire and they soon took over seafaring in the Mediterranean. And the rig that they used , spreading it before them over the whole sea, was not the square rig which had served people of so long in ocean voyaging, but the lateen, a form of fore and aft rig.
The square sail hung from a yard at its head and with the yard slung before the mast at the mid point of the former. When driving the ship the wind always blows on the same side of the sail. The fore and aft sail in contrast is hinged on the mast in the fashion of a gate, and being free to swing from side to side the wind plays first on one surface of the sail and then on the other, depending on the wind's direction and how the sail is trimmed. A more subtle propulsive power is thus derived. While along the coasts of northern europe the square sail remained dominant, for 500 years the Mediterranean was the sea of the lateen until, in the Medieval period, features of the northern and mediterranean rig were merged to produce the three-masted ship, which has been described as the master tool of western civilization.
Model Boat Building
16th Century Ships
17th Century Ships
18th Century Ships
ship of the line