Portcities Southampton
UK * Bristol * Hartlepool * Liverpool * London * Southampton
You are here: PortCities Southampton > Diversity of Ships > What drives the ship? > Harnessing the wind > Masts and sails
* Text only * About this site * Site Map * Feedback
Explore this site
Start Here
About Us
Partners And Collections
Get Interactive!
Image galleries
The Docks
River Itchen
Southampton at war
Flying Boats
Finding Out More
Southampton speaks
Street Directories
Historic Buildings Survey
Registers and Records
Lloyd's Register
Official Sources
Other Records
Finding Out More
Wrecks and Accidents
Why accidents happen
Improving Safety at Sea
Finding Out More
Wreck Reports
Life of a Port
How a port comes to life
At work in a port
Ports at play
Trade - lifeblood of a port
Finding Out More
On the Line
Company growth and development
Shipping lines
Transatlantic travel
Preparing a liner
Finding Out More
Sea People
Life at sea
Jobs at sea
Travelling by sea
Starting a new life by sea
Women and the sea
Finding Out More
Diversity of Ships
The variety of ships
What drives the ship?
Ships of ancient times
Ships in the age of sail
Ships of the steam age
Ships of today

Harnessing the wind

Masts and sails

The earliest evidence of the use of a sail comes from a picture on an Egyptian vase dated to 3500 BC.  This was a square sail mounted on a mast in the bow.  Later illustrations clearly show a sail hung from a yard, with a boom along its foot to give extra control.

It is quite possible that the sail was invented in Egypt.  The Nile runs the length of Egypt, and the prevailing wind blows in the opposite direction to the flow of the river.  So, with a vessel equipped with a sail, the boatman could travel up or down the river without having to rely on muscle power.

It is likely that travellers to Egypt took home the idea of sails, which were used on sea-going ships built by the Phoenicians, Greeks and later the Romans.  Illustrations from the first millennium BC on Greek vases clearly show merchant ships and warships with square sails.  It is a matter of speculation if and how sails spread beyond the Mediterranean.  There are illustrations from what is now France dating from around 100 BC of Celtic boats which appear to have masts.  Surprisingly, those great seafarers the Vikings seem to have adopted the sail rather late, not until the 8th century AD.  The evidence from archaeology suggests that their early vessels, in which they made extensive voyages around the Atlantic and along the Mediterranean, were propelled only by oars. 


Advanced Search
Southampton City Council New Opportunities Fund Lloyd's Register London Metropolitan Archives National Maritime Museum World Ship Society  
Legal & Copyright * Partner sites: Bristol * Hartlepool * Liverpool * London * Southampton * Text only * About this site * Feedback