Started Sailing

History of reaching

by Tomas

I was wondering about the history of reaching.

I guess the first sailor on earth just put up a sheet of cloth and felt the wind blow into it. He made a sail out of it and there was the first sailboat, ready to be pushed across the lake.

This is how I thought sailboats worked when thinking about it as a child. But how could boats sail other courses than plain downwind?

I still don't fully understand how lift works, and I wondered: when and how did man discover that you could also sail perpendicular to the wind, even close hauled? Or did one have to wait for the wind to blow in your desired direction in earlier times?

For example, in Virgil's Aeneis, book 4, Aeneas (the hero) seeks to flee from Carthage and it's queen Dido, to Rome. He had to sail northeast to get from current Tunisia to Rome, "amidst of north winds" ("mediis properas aquilonibus ire per altum", v.311)
Was this at all possible back then?


PS. Here you can find a map of the Phoenician empire with Carthage and Rome:

Comments for History of reaching

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May 29, 2011
Your suppositions as a child were probably right.
by: Han

Hi Tomas,

I'm sure the power of the wind was discovered long before anyone thought about propelling a ship by it. This article: gives you some insight in the historic development of sails, and this one: about lift; it's about the lift on wings, but the same goes for sails (a vertical wing).
The possibilities of square-sail navigation some centuries later are illustrated here:
but those centuries don't mean anything for the technology: developments were very slow to
Square sails were not used only perpendicular to the hull but could be braced to an angle which made a close reach possible, but close-hauled courses were still far into the future.
So you see, the trip you describe was a relatively easy one for the Carthago sailors.

Hope you know enough now,



Jun 24, 2011
by: Tomas

Thanks a lot for your answer. Hanno the Navigator sure made an impressive trip, and it's interesting to know that you can indeed sail perpendicular to the wind on square riggers!

Your link to the Wikipedia article on Sails set me going, and I learned that there are two main groups of rigging: square-rigging and fore-and-aft rigging. The latter was only used in Europe from the Greco-Roman time onwards, so Carthagians and Trojans probably sailed square-rigged boats. (Here you can read parts of a good book about the subject:

If you scroll down this page:,
there's an image of the different angles that different rigs can sail near the wind. I guess the square riggers must have hard times getting to a point in the wind: they can ultimately reach a 60° angle to the wind, and I guess they lose height on top of that, because of drifting, like small modern yachts and cats also do. The Arab pirate lateens are remarkably better (they're fore-and-aft rigged), and modern yachts can get up to 45° to the wind, like I am used to sail.

Thanks again for your answer!

Jun 24, 2011
Rest assured,
by: Han

Tomas, it was my pleasure.



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