‘And the wind plays on those great sonorous harps, the shrouds and masts of ships.’Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Hyperion (1839)
Sailing has been around for a long time. The sight of triangular sails scudding around over the oceans, dams and lakes of the world these days is more indicative of fun than commerce, but the concept of using wind power to push vessels stretches back over six millennia, at least. A painted disc found in Kuwait that dates back to 5500BCE shows ships under sail, and there is little doubt that these vessels were already in common use, carrying cargos to and from trading partners. And, of course, taking the concept of sailing as a means of getting from place to place along as well. Early seaborn nations would have shared their skills – no doubt at a price – and before long sailing vessels were ubiquitous among the old-world countries and the East. Unfortunately, the leaders of these countries (as always) saw great scope in this method of transport to carry armies over previously unpassable stretches of ocean, and colonialism had a whole new set of skills to advance its cause.
It wasn’t only the old world. Austronesian nations were incredibly adept sailors, their outrigged boats were responsible for peopling the myriad islands in the Southern Pacific regions, and to this day navigators marvel at the skills these early sailors displayed in charting stars, winds and currents. These proto-navigators used a system known as stick charts; they tied together a framework of sticks made from coconut fronds, where each stick represented a current, a wind or a combination of ocean swell patterns. On these stick charts were stuck shells, representing the islands positions relative to the factors affecting sailing. Unfortunately, only the person who constructed the chart understood it, so they weren’t too user friendly. But a good navigator would take the small vessels across many hundreds of sea miles with unerring accuracy.
Compasses were discovered as long ago as 206BCE in the Chinese Han Dynasty, but were used for divination purposes only, which seems a pity. Regarded as one of the Four Great Inventions, compasses only become commonly used for navigation in the 11th century, and this was the time when sailing also advanced in all respects. Ship builders and sail makers strengthened and improved hulls, masts and sail patterns to allow for voyages through more dangerous waters over longer distances, although in those days without charts to show obstacles, sinking was a fairly regular occurrence. The greatest shift in understanding and ability was when it was realised that sailing ships did not only have to sail with the wind; a fore-and-aft sail could be adjusted to bring a ship into the wind, and by tacking from port to starboard, vessels could proceed in any direction they chose. You not only sailed with the trade winds, but against them too. The days of the sluggish galleons with their square-rigged masts becalmed and waiting for favourable winds was over; the extraordinary clipper ships could speed between the continents at speeds that favoured trade.
These days, of course, sailing has been pushed into the background by the oil-gobbling motors that power the thousands of cargo vessels and cruise ships that ply the oceans. These behemoths are generally graceless and are designed with one thing in mind: to pack as much cargo or as many passengers aboard as possible. Of course, the downside is that when pandemics strike, as they will, many of these huge ships become redundant. One of the sadder sights on this planet is to watch a modern looking ship being ridden on to a breaker’s beach in India, it’s siren mournfully sounding its last song.
But then again, sailing hasn’t been standing still either. The recently completed 2021 Prada Challenger’s Trophy in New Zealand featured exclusive 75 ft foiling monohulls, and watching these AC 75yachts in action is like watching Star Wars at sea. With sailing hydrofoils on each side, the hulls rise from the ocean like surfacing dolphins, and they literally fly across the water, balancing on a slender rib. It is spectacular to watch, and sailing these super yachts is an art. The seemingly impossible occurs: the yachts can exceed the wind speed by up to 80%. This means that speeds of up to 52 knots, or over 100kph can be achieved, giving spectators breath-taking viewing, and skippers and crew heart stopping moments too. The American entry was overturned by a sudden unexpected gust of wind and her hull holed. Not what you want to do to a R100 million rand vessel at the best of times…
Will this new technology (we can’t call it ground breaking; maybe water cleaving?) eventually be translated back to working ships? We can only hope so from an ecological as well as practical point of view. The thought of the tall ships cruising silently around the waterways again is very attractive. But in the meantime – there is always Waterfront Charters! Whether you want a Table Bay adventure aboard our twin-masted schooner Esperance, or a luxurious cruise on sailing catamaran Serenity One, we’ll bring the wind to heel. Nothing beats the pure sound of the wind in the sails and the bow cutting through the Atlantic. All aboard, me hearties!