A Brief History Of Sailing

We’ve all seen sailboats – those big, floaty things that glide around in the local harbor knocking jet skiers off their asses – but have you ever wondered where these wonderful contraptions came from? Probably not, but see if that stops me…

The sail itself was first created by the ancient Sumerians, a people best remembered today for having built an empire out of Chocolate Mudcake and a handful of bread sticks. The particular Sumerian who invented the first sail was apparently named Miskalam Haradug, which translates roughly as “Red-Faced Sheep-Stealer,” but apart from that not much is known of him. We do, however, know that he met with little success – the boat had not yet been invented and standing in the shallows with a sail hanging from your nose while several of your friends huff and puff into it (your sail, not your nose) turned out to be an inadequate means of getting around. A few years later some unknown Sumerian finally invented the boat and things started to look up for Miskalam and his friends, though at first everyone was still trying to achieve propulsion by blowing into the sail. It was not until it was noticed that if the sail was placed in the right position the wind would provide the desired propulsion that the new contraption finally proved useful. Being a notoriously shy people, the Sumerians used the newly created invention for fishing and such and did not bother to venture far in search of new lands.

That was left to the Phoenicians, whose great innovation was constructing their sailing ships from ostrich feathers. This made the boats much lighter and hence easier to propel even in a weak wind, though it must have been rather embarrassing for all those ostriches wandering around Phoenicia totally naked. The Phoenicians are thought to have sailed as far away as Britain, though the climate did not please them so they returned without laying claim to the land and for several centuries claimed to have never actually been there. What they did not deny was that they regularly sailed to Greece where they traded with the locals, introducing them to such delicacies as vine leaves stuffed with fermented goat dung. Being no fools, the Greeks soon disposed of the vine leaves and kept only the fermented goat dung, which to this day they use to make the Retsina so popular in Europe’s finest dining establishments.

The Greeks’ next door neighbors, the Minoans, made no lasting contribution to sailing as they were obsessed with pottery and hence thought that the best material from which to construct their ships would be clay. Not having kilns large enough to fire an entire ship they constructed the vessels from parts small enough to be fired and then tried to stick these parts together with wet clay. This led to a situation where every time a new ship was launched the citizenry waged large sums on whether it would sink under its own weight or simply disintegrate. This state of affairs placed great stress on the Minoan economy and also caused a great deal of early deaths, which is why you don’t meet many Minoans these days.

The great Viking leader Ragnar the Flatulent was responsible for creating the anchor – up to that point the only way to keep a ship from drifting away was to nail it to the sea, a method which was extremely time consuming. This first anchor consisted of an old fishing net full of anvils stolen from blacksmiths during the Viking raids on the British coast. It has been suggested by some historians that the Vikings’ own inability to make anvils was, in fact, the main reason for these raids, but that the Vikings were too embarrassed to admit it and so pretended to be raiding for pork pies and black pudding.

One of the highlights in the history of sailing came in 1522, thanks mainly to a Scotsman called Fergus MacGellan who had moved to Spain after failing to find work as a tailor’s dummy in his native land. Once in the land of tapas and bullfights, Fergus avoided the country’s infamous anti-Scot sentiment by claiming to be a former sardine seller from Seville and changing his name to the less foreign-sounding Ferdinand Magellan. Spain’s King Charles the First ( also known to historians as Charles the Fifth, and to his poker buddies as Charley the Welsher ) had always been fascinated by sardines and soon befriended Ferdinand and talked him into trying to sail around the world in an attempt to prove that it was flat. The king was famous for his sense of humor and this struck him as a splendid practical joke to play on Magellan – Charles is rumored to have once placed a ferret down the cassock of Pope Pious the 15th, causing the latter man to perform what has come to be regarded as the precursor of modern jazz dancing. Although, much to King Charles’ dismay, Ferdinand did not plummet to his death over the edge of the earth, he did actually die towards the end of the voyage, reportedly from eating some bad Paella during a stop in the Philippines.

In 1778, an Englishman named Captain William Edgar set sail from Liverpool in an attempt to discover a new route to India – the already known routes were owned by a consortium of European nations which refused to let the English use them on the principle that any race that could name a dessert “Spotted Dick” should be ostracized by its more civilized neighbors. After a trip lasting almost 63 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes and 7 seconds, Captain Edgar sighted New York harbor and he and his company went ashore to plant the English flag. It was at this point that Edgar noticed that, for an undiscovered land, the place was unusually full of not only suspiciously Caucasian-looking people but also buildings, roads, 7-11s and other signs that he may not have been the first visitor to those shores. Chagrined that America had already been discovered, Captain Edgar forgot all about India and retired in bitterness.

A year later, the fascinating and historically momentous age of the sail came to an end when ship owners realized it was more effective to propel a ship by using huge paddlewheels powered by hundreds of badly-paid hamsters. After that discovery, there was no real need for sails –  which is probably a good thing as hamsters are known to be terrible at things like rigging, and are more likely to chew on the mizzen-mast than to scrub the decks.

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