Sailboat History: How and When It Was Invented

When Was The Sailboat Invented?

Sailboats have been around for many centuries. As one of the earliest forms of sea transportation, people often think of sailing as having been around forever. However, sailing wasn’t invented until a well-established civilization found a need to fish and travel far from home.

Sailing was invented between 4,000 BC to 3,200 BC in Egypt. Ancient Egyptians tied thousands of reeds together, creating a semi-stable surface for sailing. They used sticks to row and wide sheets of reeds and fabric to sail with the wind.

Throughout this article, we’ll explain where sailing was invented, who improved it with wood and high-end materials, and how people sailed without engines powered by steam or gasoline.

Where Was Sailing Invented?

Sailing was invented thousands of years ago in Egypt. While it wasn’t called sailing, Egyptians used reeds and fabric to guide their boats down the river. The gusts would help Egyptians navigate the Nile River to their next destination.

According to Life of Sailing, Ancient Egyptians often sailed to find food and move vast distances without stepping foot on land. The Nile River was wide enough for plenty of fish and narrow enough to let the Egyptians always see land. It was perhaps the perfect place to invent sailing because they could quickly swim to the shore if anything went wrong.

That being said, the invention of sailing didn’t include wood, ropes, and heavy-duty materials. Ancient sailors could rarely use their boats more than a few times without repairing the reeds or scraping the vessel altogether. Since this form of transportation and fishing was so effective, many civilizations began improving sailboats.

Read on to learn more about which civilizations helped improve the ancient sailboat to make it much more like the modern boats we know today.

Who Built the First Sailing Boat in the World?

The Greeks, Phoenicians, and Egyptians created the first sailing boats in the world. After centuries of using reeds and other fibrous materials, people began shifting to wooden planks. While the wood was much more durable, it was prone to rot under improper maintenance. However, constant cleaning and minor repairs made them last much longer.

Here’s what you should know about the first sailboats around the globe:

  • Marine Insight states galleys were invented as early as 1,550 BC. These boats had many more sails than traditional sailboats. They also had massive crews consisting of dozens of men using oars. The addition of several sails helped ancient civilizations cover vast distances at much quicker rates.

  • Sailboats required almost constant manpower until engines were invented. While the sails helped propel the boats a little bit, manpower was the primary source of movement. However, sailing crews could move with the wind to take breaks and help the boat move without unbearable amounts of energy.

  • Many wooden sailboats were designed to last multiple decades. In fact, sailboats last up to 50 years or more. Ancient wooden sailboats are no different. Many old sailboats are discovered with the entire boat intact (minus the sails). These boats were able to withstand strong currents and heavy winds.

  • Sailboats were also used for war and gathering supplies. Modern sailboats are mostly used for fishing and leisure. However, sailboats were some of the only forms of water transportation for many centuries. Civilizations would use them to gain vantage points during wars while collecting materials and when trading with other civilizations.

  • These boats were made in all shapes and sizes. Some sailboats were as narrow as kayaks, while others were several meters wide. Many ancient sailboats have been discovered well over 50 to 100 meters long. These vessels were typically used for trading and fishing since there was plenty of room for storage.

Sailboats changed significantly once engines were invented. While this process took many centuries, it shaped the modern world. People were able to sail, trade, buy, sell, and travel much quicker and easier. If you’re interested in learning more about how ships sailed before engines were made, head to the following section.

Classical Sailing Kayak
Classical Sailing Kayak

How Did Ships Sail Before Engines?

Before engines were invented, ships sailed by using numerous passengers with oars. The oars provided the power necessary to propel the sailboat. At the same time, the sails helped shift the direction and lighten the load on the rowers. Once steam engines were invented, there wasn’t much of a need for dozens of rowers on larger sailboats.

The History of Ships claims rowing was invented before sailing. Ancient civilizations naturally shifted toward sailing without getting rid of rowing. While old forms of sailing were quite efficient compared to rowing alone, most sailboats required a lot of manpower when the winds were calm.

When Did Sailboats Get Engines?

Sailboats began having engines in the late 1800s to the early 1900s. While it seems like engines have been around for a while, they’ve only been used for a fraction of the time sailboats have existed. Many people prefer sailing without an engine to bring back traditional sailing practices. However, commercial companies almost never sail without engines.

Furthermore, modern sailboats aren’t used in war. Sailing is now used as a way for people to see the world, enjoy the coastline, or race. Many seaside villages still use sailboats to catch fish, too. These fish are often frozen and shipped via larger engine-powered vessels. Net fishing is also quite popular for sailors in some parts of the world.

The evolution of sailing has taken massive leaps since its invention thousands of years ago. That being said, it retains the sole, unique method of propulsion that it’s had since it was created. This method of transportation has grown from one sail and a boat of reeds to numerous sails on massive ships with various, more durable materials.

Evolution has brought us modern sailboats
Modern sailboats anchored in Greece with Ellidah in the front.

Final Thoughts

Sailing has been around for thousands of years, but most of the traditional techniques are still used today. Sailboats only require sails to catch the wind and can voyage massive distances without the help of an engine. However, most modern sailboats nowadays have an engine to propel the vessel when the wind is lacking and for other maneuvering and mooring purposes.


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