16. Have Sail, Will Travel: The Origins, Types, and Capabilities of Sails and Rigs
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16 Have Sail, Will Travel The Origins, Types, and Capabilities of Sails and Rigs And who else by the Art of Navigation have seemed to imitate Him, which laies the beams of his chambers in the Waters, and walketh on the wings of the wind? —Samuel Purchas, early 1600s, referencing Psalms 104:3 The invention of the sail was one of humankind’s most significant accomplishments , rivaling if not outweighing in importance the invention of the vehicular wheel. The Australian Polynesianist archaeologist Atholl Anderson considered its emergence to have been “no less significant than Neolithicization and urbanization.”1 The sail was a tool that utilized, with minimum effort, an ongoing and gratis source of energy without diminishing the supply, and that fact ultimately led to the ability to travel to anywhere touched by the seven seas. Just where sails first came to be used cannot be definitively ascertained, although— as mentioned in the previous chapter—coastal/insular greater South­ east Asia was perhaps the earliest hearth. Putting Wind in the Sail: Origins Whereas accidental drift voyages could carry castaways in sail-­ less watercraft for great distances, even sometimes across seas, intentional transoceanic travel, especially if involving return voyages, almost necessarily involved the use of sail. Although people widely propelled their craft by poling and paddling, and in some Old World areas by sculling or rowing, and although in modern times a number of oar-­ powered transatlantic, transpacific, and transindian crossings have been made, at least in the tropics paddle power alone would not be practical for very long voyages, owing to the high food and water requirements that such physical effort would engender—although paddling or rowing remained an important supplement during periods of calm and of contrary winds. The principle of using wind pressure as a source of propulsion no doubt arose by observation of its effect on the craft alone and/or on a person in the craft, especially if standing and even more so if holding something against which the wind could press (or, stricltly speaking, behind which the wind could ­ create 174 / Chapter 16 a propulsive vacuum). In fact, ancient depictions and modern ethnographic observations suggest that a vertically held foliated tree branch or palm frond (possibly used as camouflage while hunting) may have been the first protosail, probably followed by a crude manually maintained mat, perhaps made of two palm fronds plaited together, yielding a kind of hand-­ held bipod mast with sail. If the invention of the sail was later, leather or basketry shields could also have functioned as protosails. The ancient Mesopotamian Gilgamesh legend has its hero holding his garment aloft as a field-­ expedient sail. The earliest true sails, which seem certainly to have preceded the loom-­ weaving of cloth, were presumably made of matting. These sorts of sails have survived into contemporary times in certain parts of the world. In some areas (for example, north­ west­ ern Europe), leather sails were used instead. Later, lighter-­ weight and more flexible cloth sails of linen, wool, and cotton came to be utilized—­ initially, of plain weave, later of twill weave, the latter imparting greater strength. What most consider to be the earliest depiction of a seeming sailing craft so far discovered is from As-­ Sabiyah, Kuwait, where an apparent boat with a converging bipod mast is painted on an Ubaid 3-­period ceramic disk dated to the late sixth millennium BC.2 Models, pottery and fresco representations, and petroglyphs of boats with masts and rectangular sails are known from pre-­ Dynastic Egypt at circa 3500 BC and from circa 3400 BC in Mesopotamia. Ships with square sails are also depicted on Minoan seals from Crete of about 2000 BC. South Asia’s earliest representations of masts (some possibly bipod) and (probably square or rectangular) sails date to the Harappan period (third millennium BC). In China, direct evidence of sails goes back into the sec­ ond millennium BC. On the basis of these data, many believe that use of sail did not commence until around the fifth millennium BC,3 and around the mid-­ Holocene there is indeed much evidence for increased maritime mobility. The experimental voyager Dominique Görlitz has reported Neolithic rock paintings, distributed from the Algerian Sahara to North­ east Africa, that depict masts, sails, and leeboards.4 In my opinion and that of a number of others, sail was being employed much earlier. It’s Rigged: Sail Types and Suspensions and What They Can Do Sails may be classified on...