Tag Archives: nautical

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!

Halloween costumes for the sailor, beyond Jack Sparrow

jack sparrowIf you’re anything like me, every year you have a great Halloween costume idea in mid-July, which you then forget about, and on October 30th, or sometimes the morning of the 31st, you think, “Wait a second, everyone else is dressing up, I should be too.” On the other hand, maybe your costume is ready way in advance, but it’s a little too expected…do you really want to be Jack Sparrow #4 at the party?

Your local costume store will be well stocked with generic seagoing outfits, but what if you want something with a little personality? Here are some ideas for nautically themed costumes, ranked from Easy to Nearly Impossible:

Pirate: A classic. All you need is an eyepatch from the local drugstore, a black paper hat with a skull and crossbones (a bandanna will do in a pinch), and white shirt (preferably with ruffles). Bonus points for a parrot on the shoulder. Extra bonus points for dressing up as a SPECIFIC pirate, especially if it’s Blackbeard and you put firecrackers in your hair. (Note: We don’t recommend that! It would definitely launch this costume into the Nearly Impossible category!)

Swabbie: Wear all white and carry a mop. Do whatever your superior officer tells you.

Richard Branson: Business mogul and lover of sailing. You’ll need a blond wig and a goatee, and a nice suit (but no tie!). Try to act like you have a lot of money and know exactly what to do with it.


Davy Jones/Neptune: It’s not easy being an undersea deity. For Neptune you’ll need his trademark trident and white, flowing beard. Also, he never seems to wear a shirt. (If I had that physique I wouldn’t either.) If you want to try Davy Jones (and not the one from the Monkees), you have some room to be creative. The name Davy Jones has been attributed to an English pub owner who kidnapped sailors, a ghost captain, and even the devil himself. No one really knows, so do what you like best. Just be sure to make frequent references to your “locker.”
jfk sailing
Royal Navy Admiral: An admiral needs to look SNAPPY. Everyone else at the party will be looking to you for guidance when the chips are down and the guacamole has run out. Project confidence and leadership with a bicorn hat and gold epaulets. Bonus points for sewing the correct rank insignia onto your sleeves. The best thing about this costume is that the swabbie has to follow your every order.

JFK: Our most stylish president was also a decorated naval officer and an avid sailor. Go with shorts, deck shoes, and a rumpled-but-classy oxford shirt, open at the collar. Put in the time to perfect your Massachusetts accent, and be sure to give an inspiring speech before the night is over.


Jellyfish: It’s tough to get that “gelatinous predator” look just right. For the ladies, maybe try a tu-tu with colored yarn or paper attached. A clear plastic umbrella could also be a good starting point. I actually have no idea how you would make this costume, but I’d LOVE to see somebody pull it off.

Solo Non-Stop Circumnavigator: Let your hair grow for about eight months, shower infrequently, and talk to yourself a lot because there’s no one else around. Some possible models include Joshua Slocum, Reid Stowe, and Jessica Watson (don’t forget the Australian accent!). Oh, and of course, earn the respect and admiration of your fellow sailors for having the guts and skill to do it, even if you’re only pretending.

What are you doing for Halloween? Any other/better costume ideas? Let us know in the comments!

ASA Members Recommend…movies & books

On our Facebook and Twitter pages we love to ask our fans for their opinions on all things nautical. In the last couple of weeks I’ve asked people for their recommendations on sailing movies & books. The guidelines were loose — as long as it has something to do with seafaring, it was fair game. Some of these are serious, some silly, some realistic, some not-so-much. Some you will certainly have seen or read before, some you may not have heard of. All of them are works that our members have enjoyed, and you might too. (Perhaps to fill the long winter months until sailing season starts again?)

These lists are not comprehensive by any means, but they’ll get you started. Let us hear your thoughts in the comments below.

    Captains Courageous (1937) starring Freddie Bartholomew & Spencer Tracy, dir. by Victor Fleming
    Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) starring Russell Crowe & Paul Bettany, dir. by Peter Weir
    Captain Ron (1992) starring Kurt Russell & Martin Short, dir. by Thom Eberhardt
    Summer Rental (1984) starring John Candy, dir. by Carl Reiner
    Cabin Boy (1994) starring Chris Elliott, dir. by Adam Resnick
    Wind (1992) starring Matthew Modine & Jennifer Grey, dir. by Carroll Ballard
    Morning Light (2008) starring Chris Branning & Kate Theisen, dir. by Mark Monroe
    Morgan the Pirate (1960) starring Steve Reeves, dir. by Andre de Toth & Primo Zeglio
    The Bounty (1984) starring Mel Gibson & Anthony Hopkins, dir. by Roger Donaldson
    The Adventures of Horatio Hornblower (1998-2003) miniseries starring Ioan Gruffudd, produced by A&E

For a more comprehensive list of sailing movies, click here.

    Fiction Books:
    The Mutiny on the Bounty Trilogy by Charles Nordhoff & James Norman Hall (first volume 1932)
    The Aubrey/Maturin Novels by Patrick O’Brian (series of 20; first volume 1969)
    Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome (series of 12; first volume 1930)
    The Horatio Hornblower Novels by C.S. Forester (series of 11; first volume 1937)
    Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)
    Middle Passage by Charles Johnson (1990)
    John Dollar by Marianne Wiggins (1989)
    The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952)
    Jaws by Peter Benchley (1974)
    Sounding by Hank Searls (1982)
    Mutiny on the Bounty by John Boyne (2008)
    Nonfiction Books:
    Close to the Wind by Pete Goss (2000)
    Blue Latitudes by Tony Horwitz (2002)
    Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum (1900)
    The Last Grain Race by Eric Newby (1956)
    The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float by Farley Mowat (1969)
    Sea Change by Peter Nichols (1998)
    Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana (1840)
    Ten Degrees of Reckoning by Hester Rumberg (2007)
    Looking for a Ship by John McPhee (1990)
    Godforsaken Sea: Racing the World’s Most Dangerous Waters by Derek Lundy (1998)

Note: Though almost all of the books that made our list were written by men, I did come across this list of sailing-related books by and about women.

Got more suggestions? Write a comment!