Sailing is a prime form of technological magic that we take for granted. You stick a boat in the water with a standing sheet of cloth or plastic and expect it to start zooming wherever you like. Pretty miraculous, though. Like flying, it’s not just going fast and having wings, but how the wings are shaped. In the same way, sailboats move because of how the sails are shaped, and how they’re allowed to move.
Human cultures have a lot of coastlines, so for eight millennia, those cultures learned how to navigate long distances–without computers, electricity, steam power, sextants, or even nails. The Portugese, Phoenicians, Vikings, and the Chinese all created distinct seafaring dynasties, each in their own turn. As I’m about to start a journey across the Atlantic on a boat, I decided to try to understand exactly how they did it.
If Square, Add Oars
The oldest known ship, the Pessoe canoe in the Netherlands, dates back to 8000 BC. From Easter Island to the fertile crescent to the Inuit, people have been hollowing out a tree or lashing logs together, raft-like, in order to move across the water. Many added a bit of cloth mounted on a stick to move away from the wind, plus some oar power to keep going when the wind was in the wrong direction or nonexistent.