Tag Archives: history


Let’s Talk About Sextants!

Ah, the sextant… that odd magical contraption that sleeps in an aged wooden box and stored in a seldom-used locker. Every once in a while you break it out and it’s glorious to behold – there’s poetry in its very existence. You look at the curves and the shiny mirrors, then you spin the dials – they feel substantial and real. You gaze at the increment markers and numbers and hold it in your hand just as Captain Cook’s navigator did with something oh so similar. As you feel the weight of this incredible innovative invention you mutter, “I wish I knew how to use this damn thing…” And you put it back into the really cool wooden box.
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The Evolution of the Sail

wing on wing sailingNo one knows quite how sailing began, though it’s certainly been going on for thousands of years. For example, way back in 1200 BC the Greeks launched 1,000 ships and sailed to Troy, and subsequently Odysseus went on one of the worst Mediterranean sailing charters in history trying to get home again.

Like most things, the creation of a sail probably started as an accident–someone somewhere held a piece of cloth up to the wind and noticed that it made their canoe/raft/piece of driftwood move faster. From those humble beginnings, the idea of using a sail to move through the water went on to change the world forever.

So how did it happen?

For at least a thousand years, the primary type of sailing ship was the square-rigger. A square-rigged sail is, not surprisingly, square, and is designed to have the wind push on it from the back and propel the boat forward. A simple and effective idea, and square-rigged ships drove world travel, commerce, and warfare for hundreds of years. But it had its limitations. The main problem was that you could ONLY sail running with the wind at your back, or at a very limited angle to it. Not very convenient if your destination lay in the other direction. The only answer was to start rowing (or in the case of the Romans and Egyptians, have your slaves do it).

As technology improved, sails began to be cut differently, into the more familiar triangular shape we see today. The materials also changed, from natural fabrics like hemp and cotton to nylon and polyester. But it wasn’t actually anything to do with the sail that caused the massive change from square-riggers to modern boats with more points-of-sail. It was the hull design. Shipwrights in the 18th and 19th centuries improved upon their design, taking them from wide, ponderous tubs to sleek and efficient keelboats. So the next time you’re flying along close-hauled, spare a thought for those hardworking ship designers of yesteryear!

It was a long process of incremental changes and innovations that got us where we are today. Of course, an airplane wing works on the same principles as a sail, so all those centuries of messing about in boats laid the groundwork for human flight. Now airplanes are returning the favor: Fans of the America’s Cup look on in awe as AC45 catamarans slice through the water at speeds above 30 knots. The mainsail of an AC45, which resembles a spaceship more than a sailboat, is made of rigid plastic, and is referred to as a “wing sail.” Whether or not these sails have any mainstream future for the average sailor remains to be seen, but it’s proof that there is still plenty of room for innovation.

Sails conquered earth’s watery frontiers, and space could be next. With the field of solar sails growing, who knows where sailing will take us next? Want to know more about the sail and other parts of a sailboat? Enroll in a local, basic sailing course at an ASA sailing school near you!

The History of the ASA

asa burgeeBeginnings

Until 1983, the United States had no nationally recognized set of standards for sailors. This made it very difficult to tell who was proficient and who wasn’t–a big problem for anyone renting or chartering sailboats, and for people who wanted to learn to sail but didn’t know where to start. That all changed when Lenny Shabes, a charter operator in Marina del Rey, CA, decided to found the ASA.

Frustrated with the lengthy exams he had to give everyone who asked to charter a boat, and inspired by the certification agencies of countries such as France, Canada, and Germany, Lenny set about adapting a set of comprehensive standards, based on those of the Canadian Yachting Association, that would be recognized across the nation. The system was based on having professional, highly qualified instructors teach classes at independent, ASA-accredited sailing schools. Each level of certification a sailor earned would be recorded in their ASA Log Book and could be used as proof of competency.

But that was only the beginning. ASA grew steadily to become the leader in sailing education, issuing more than 800,000 certifications to date, welcoming all types and levels of sailors. ASA’s courses are designed to help anyone reach the level of sailing they desire.

For example, some folks are looking to sail a small boat on their local bay or lake for pleasure. ASA 101, Basic Keelboat, gives them the basic training they need to sail safely and confidently. But for those seeking to bareboat charter, cruise the coast, or even make a major ocean passage, there’s an ASA course for them too! You can even begin your sailing adventure online.

The introduction of standards had a profound effect on sailing in the United States. It made sailing more accessible by connecting people with great teachers they may never have found otherwise. It also made it safer, by helping to ensure that boat skippers had the proper training. Finally, it made sailing more fun! Whole new worlds of sailing could be opened up through quality education, which leads us to…

ASA Today

As ASA has grown, it has become one of the biggest boosters of the sailing lifestyle. With over 300 schools around the U.S., and in several foreign countries, ASA is a gigantic community of people who love sailing. This has led to a number of great opportunities for ASA members, including ASA flotillas in exotic destinations, ASA Sailing Week in St. Petersburg, Florida, and a lively online community.

Now, you can find ASA members in every corner of the globe, ASA burgees flying proudly in ports from the British Virgin Islands to the Pacific Northwest, and an ASA school is never far away. Perhaps most importantly, the ASA certifications in your Log Book (in hard copy and online, of course) are respected and recognized as coming from the authority in sailing education.

This Week in Sailing History

moby dickThere’s something about the first week of August. All sorts of notable events in sailing history took place this week, and here’s a list of some of our favorites!

Monday, August 1: American writer Herman Melville was born on this day in 1819. Melville spent his youth traveling the world aboard sailing ships, specifically Nantucket whalers, and these experiences informed all of his writing, from his debut in Typee to his masterpiece, Moby Dick. Melville was not very well appreciated during his lifetime, but Moby Dick is now recognized as one of the greatest books ever written.

Tuesday, August 2: On this day in 1610, Englishman Henry Hudson sailed into a large body of water that he took to be the Pacific Ocean. Hudson wanted to navigate the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and he thought he’d been successful. Unfortunately, he was actually about 2,000 miles short. What he’d found was the huge expanse that is now called Hudson Bay. The bay remains a popular sailing destination.
Wednesday, August 3: On this day in 1492, Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain. In another tale of mistaken continental identity, Columbus thought he would reach India on the other side of the Atlantic. Of course, he actually landed on the Caribbean island of Dominica. Columbus eventually realized tha the had not landed in India, but remained convinced to the end of his life that he had reached some part of Asia.

Thursday, August 4: Coast Guard Day! This holiday commemorates the founding of the Coast Guard in 1790 (back then it was called the Revenue Cutter Service), and it’s a chance for all of us sailors to thank the men and women of the USCG for keeping us safe on the water!

Friday, August 5: This is the day that, in 1620, the Mayflower set sail from Southampton, England on its first attempt to reach the New World. It took a couple of false starts, but the Mayflower finally made a harrowing 66-day passage to Cape Cod, and the rest, as they say, is history.

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