Unintuitive truths about ancient sailing techniques & technologies

Eleanor Konik

Eleanor Konik

Professionally, I teach world history. In my downtime, I enjoy combining storytelling with my love of sharing obscure history and science.


A friend bought me Beyond the Blue Horizon by Brian Fagan for Christmas and I've been working my way through it. This week I used some of what I learned as inspiration to kick off a short story I'm working on, so I went back over my notes and did a little supplementary research about how sailing technology and techniques facilitated trade in pre-modern societies.

Fun Facts

  • Mitochondrial DNA from chicken bones offer proof of Polynesian/American trade before the 1450s.
  • Human power mattered more than sail on the Aegean sea due to unpredictable winds
  • Corinth pioneered the development of warships, for example adding specialty rams and fighting platforms.
  • Dhow builders used fish oil to seal the planks after pitch or resin and whale oil to caulk the seams, which led to the air belowdecks being very smelly.
  • The longest an ancient dugout canoe could stay at sea without reprovisioning was about twenty days.

The Winds of Trade

In the Indian Ocean, Monsoon winds blow from the northeast from November from March and mostly from the southwest between May and September. This predictability ā€” and the assurance that, barring accident or piracy, a sailor could always get home again ā€” made them useful for trading. By contrast, the Atlantic Ocean easterlies and westerlies blow much more consistently in a single direction, requiring more circular trade routes. [Read More]

Sounding The Harbor Bottom

Lead lines were used by pre-modern mariners for measuring depth ("sounding"). When coated in grease or tallow, they would pick up residue and sediment that could be analyzed to determine location and evaluate whether the location would be suitable for anchorage. [Read More]

Lateen vs. Square Sails

The advantage of lateen sails is that they make it easier to "sail closer to the wind." They're not as efficient or easy to use as a square sail when "running before the wind." Lateen sails tend to be bigger, require careful handling by bigger crews, and can be more dangerous. Lateen sails are better for coastal sailing whereas square sails are preferred by traders using trade winds. [Read More]

Rafts vs. Canoes

Rafts are usually superior to canoes for crossing open water because they can be big enough to carry lots of supplies and enough people to found a viable settlement. They aren't great for rough water though, because they're hard to paddle against a headwind. [Read More]

If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy my article about maritime empires.


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