The Evolution of Sail Boat Technology

The piece below was submitted as a paper during the class on ‘Management of Technology’, whilst pursuing my MBA degree at the Questrom School of Business, Boston University in the Fall of 1982. A post-script has been added to bring the topic up to date.



Some of Mankind’s greatest accomplishments have had, perhaps, the simplest of origins. About 6000 years ago, just about the time when Man was impelled to explore water-bodies to supplement his diminishing food supply, the realization that many natural things were buoyant had taken place. Though unquestionably simple today, “this principle was probably the hardest lesson of all to learn, for until it was learnt Man had no background or experience upon which to draw”.1

This principle of buoyancy gave birth to the boat in various corners of the globe and, interestingly, its early development was not dependent on the diffusion of its concept. Rather, the earliest boats that were made were influenced by, and differed, according to the economic resources and the development of tools in that geographical region. The shortage of long timber influenced early Egyptians to make boats out of (abundant) reed, and the presence of sophisticated tools and sewing techniques promoted the development of skin boats in Scandinavia.

The birth of the boat, for the first time, allowed Man to augment his marine food supply. It then, slowly, threw light on the tremendous potential it had in fulfilling some of Man’s greatest needs. That boats could be used for transportation of people and cargo was realized a few thousand years ago. This use required greater stability and supporting capacity of the boat. “Attempts to improve these qualities led to boats being broadened, raised and lengthened by dividing the hull into separately produced sections which were then joined together.”2

A factor which really influenced the development of boat technology was the cultural level of civilizations. The Australian Aborigines, in spite of having all the required materials, never took to the sea water due to a very low standard of culture, knowledge and experience. In Portugal, even after the developments which came about in the Mediterranean, construction of obsolete ‘Saveiro’ boats was carried out until very recently due to the preferred isolation of these people. However, the Egyptians developed advanced technology, but also retained cruder techniques for the burial voyages of less important people than the Pharaohs.

One of the most peculiar features in the development of boat technology has been the very strong conservation of shipwrights and sailors until recently. In support of tradition, the Egyptians developed a long *overhang fore and aft to simplify their loading and unloading on the banks of the Nile. The stern was deliberately made to curve forward to the bow as a protection whilst *running, before the wind. “Such is the conservatism of sailors and shipbuilders that this stern bent over towards the bow survived in the Mediterranean right through Greek and Roman times, and even in recent Venetian craft”3

The development and, later, the mass production of metal tools; the accidental discovery of the sail and subsequent changes in the design of boats led to the wide scale application of boat technology. The discovery of the sail is known to have occurred in ancient Egypt along the river Nile which flows North and where winds, for most of the year, blow South. Historians have suggested “that if a shield made of animal skin was set up like a banner on a pole in a boat during religious ceremonies, someone must have observed that it was helping to move the boat before the wind”4. The keel boat evolved to provide a natural mast-step, since supporting it with hands and knees was laborious.

                                   Ancient Egyptian Boats, Pic Credit:

The use of sail boats carried risks of tremendous magnitudes. Like the recent conquest of space, the use of sail boats was an encounter with the Unknown. Man’s obsession to fathom the sea resulted in the gradual accumulation of knowledge of tides and the moon, shallow water sounding and, much later the compass, navigation and oceanography. This must have encouraged people to make distant voyages and it lessened the possibility of accidental drifting. Without this knowledge, for example, the Arabs would never have made any significant  strides in their method of boat building. “It was said that the Arabs could not use nails in their ships because it was thought there were great magnets at the bottom of the sea that dragged all the iron out of passing ships.”5

Early diffusion of sail boat knowledge could have been due to accidental drifting. Gradual building up of maritime trade and the establishment of city states like Venice, Barcelona and Zara contributed to the sharing and diffusion of knowledge. Tales of travelers like Marco Polo were also a rich source of information. The development of political empires in the Mediterranean gave a spurt to rivalry amongst them. The marine battleground was, perhaps, the greatest medium of technology transfer. “In the civil war, Caesar, by ordering his troops to make *coracles like those he had seen in Britain some years before, was able to cross the river Sicoris near Lerida, when his enemies thought he was safely contained by its flooded waters”6

Coracle from Unstead book October 2012The Earliest Type of Vessels Were in the Form of Coracles  Pic Credit: Cranberry Morning

In the Medieval economy, technical change was made possible due to the enhanced sophistication of tools and the establishment of standards of  measurement.  Safety features and seaworthiness; speed and carrying capacity now dictated design. As merchant ships grew faster than warships, the profit motive in ship construction increased which led to the simplification of the boat rig. The simplification of daily tasks in the steering of the boat also meant that the demand for ship crew had reduced. “The reason for this simplicity was that the owners could not afford the size of crews carried in warships.”7

Sail boat technology was to take its sharpest turn after the invention of the steam engine in 1769. Although steam boats played a major role only after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the Panama Canal in 1914 – thus eliminating their disability to make lengthy voyages – they were to have a radical effect on sail boats. Strangely, this very victimization preceded the revolutionary changes that were to come, in sail boat technology.

The age of the pleasure yacht had dawned.



The adoption of steam had gradually reduced the use of sail power in merchant vessels and warships. Though *dhows existed and yet do, sailing vessels were to become either naval training ships or historical treasures. The one exception, that very soon became the rule, was the use of boats for pleasure or, in other words, the sport of yachting.

With commercial sailing craft having been relegated to a less important part in academic naval architecture, experimental work in boat design was affected. Yachts were large, signifying opulence, with non- *Bermudan *gaff rigs, and they sported sails that were made of cotton or flax. The yacht was not just a handicraft, but an object of beauty that involved the creative hands of the shipwright whose talents and methods were unique and comparable to an artist’s. The yachts also had deep drafts and were made of wood, as its only substitute, iron, could not be used in smaller size crafts.

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A Non-Bermudan Gaff Rig, Pic Credit:

The sport of yachting and the science of yacht making are inextricably bound to each other.  Yachting includes racing and cruising. In the early 19th century,  yachting began as a gamble.  Yacht clubs were formed all over the U.S. and Britain, the most notable one being the New York Yacht Club. Cruising was given an impetus after successful long and short distance voyages which helped in softening the awe-struck feelings of the public. Appendix I mentions all the major yachting events and developments.

Racing has, more than cruising, contributed to the evolution of yacht technology. Competitions have precipitated radical changes in design and have made their adoption imperative. For example, Nathaniel Herreschof’s experiments in the U.S. produced the yacht ‘Gloriana’ whose revolutionary design (see Appendix II for major changes in yacht technology) was such that she was unbeaten in every race, as a result of which her design took America by storm.

index_Yacht Gloriana_longisland

An Image of Gloriana Yacht, 1891, Pic Credit:

It is important to realize the depth of power and influence that yacht clubs and institutions commanded.  Prior to the First World War, they related measurement and classification to trends in design.  These specifications were such that hulls could not be driven efficiently at high speeds in spite of the know-how of rigs and sail designs that existed. “Yachting history proves that the evolution of yacht design has not been a logical and steady series of improvements.”8

The introduction of steam yachts resulted in the decline in the popularity of schooners, especially after the rig ceased to be used in the America’s Cup. Thus, the Bermudan rig came into being before World War I. The adverse effect of the war on the sport and the industry was eliminated after it ended.

The advent of sailing as an Olympic sport in 1908, and the various international competitions and conferences held by yachting institutions, were very helpful in the dissemination of yacht technology and these gatherings increased the sport’s popularity. During World War I, acute shortage of steel and successful experiments by H. J. Hayde, who developed the first commercially feasible aggregates, laid the path for ferro-cement construction.  The development of the cement industry and the availability of concrete adhesives were very conducive to this form of boat construction.

General climate conditions now began to influence yacht construction. British boats that were to compete in the America’s Cup were often designed according to Newport climatic and sea conditions.  The building up and the diffusion of  knowledge of navigation, and the progress in the science of seamanship, gave an added boost to pleasure cruising.

Strangely, the Depression was not a deterrent to yachting. Though the grim Thirties spelled the end of big yachts, the smaller *one-design boats grew rapidly and flourished.   Many of these one-design boats had a keel that was retractable (i.e. a centerboard). They were confined mostly to inland lakes due to their poor stability, although they had definite advantage in sailing upwind.


Seabird Class, One-Design Boats are still to be found in Mumbai Harbor

History is replete with inventions that have occurred by accident. Walter Von Hustler, a professional sailor, in his effort to reduce his boat’s weight, experimented with a hollow mast which had a smaller circumference.  It was a sheer coincidence that he observed that the mast was bent backwards at the top and that the mast’s erection increased the belly of the sail. The bending of the mast was what exactly needed to flatten a given sail in a freshening breeze.

This discovery was to lead later on to the introduction of aluminum alloy as a substitute for wood in the manufacture of spars.  Whilst this improvement was being demonstrated and questioned, more research was being carried out in the relation of rigs to aerodynamics.

In 1943, promising studies on ferro-cement construction, carried out by Prof. Luigi  Nervi,  demonstrated,  for  the  first  time,  that  thousands  of  yachts  were  now being made of concrete. This method of construction was adopted widely in the British Commonwealth, probably because “Dr. Nervi’s paper was translated into English by the Cement and Concrete Association, London”.9

concrete_side2_Ferro cement construction_ Bill's Log

                         A Ferro-Cement Boat Spotted at the Brandy Hole Yacht Club,                            Pic Credit:

To the shipwright, ferro-cement construction posed a great threat. Ferro-cement’s technology differed radically from traditional construction know-how. Concrete boat building, after all, involved different tools requiring a very low level of skills. It separated the planning and building of boats and it introduced standardization.  Ferro-cement construction also proved suitable to boat builders in the Third World, due to the simplicity of this technology. This technology, however, had its risks and limitations too. “Naval architects warn that ferro-concrete construction must be competently engineered and that there must be the highest quality control in production.”10



Every time the sport of yachting has suffered, it has recovered and leapt forward with gigantic strides. After World War II, many young Americans who had gone to sea, on duty, were bent on fulfilling their post war dreams of getting afloat under more pleasant circumstances.

The post war era saw rapid developments in areas like seamanship, navigation, oceanography and aerodynamics. Experiments by Ujja Fox11 on rig structures and determination of optimum *aspect ratios were encouraging. Prof. Kenneth Davidson’s pioneering work on model tank testing at the Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, U.S.A., and the enthusiastic sail boat research at the MIT, laid the ground work for the modifications that were to take place. Undoubtedly, this research was made possible only because of the marketing of advanced test measurement devices and electronic data processing machines.

After World War II, the ready availability of water resistant plywood resulted in molded techniques making way for mass construction. Many units could now be constructed from a single pair of tooling.

The decreasing number of shipwrights also contributed to the adoption of  molded construction methods. It had a devastating effect on the shipwright’s profession, but it made the construction of more complex hulls easy and, more than anything else, more people could enter what had once been a prohibitively expensive pastime.

After the war, aluminum construction materials surfaced in the market. Though this technology did increase the strength to weight ratio by reducing the *wetted area, its high costs restricted its adoption to larger yachts.  This construction required the use of more sophisticated tools, although it required skills that could be more easily obtained than those of shipwrights.

In March 1950, the dawn of fiberglass boat building had occurred. Research carried out by “Gibbs and Cox Inc. and the Owens-Corning Fiberglass Corporation produced an excellent treatise on glass reinforced plastic construction”.12 Glass was beginning to prey on yachtsmen’s obvious susceptibility to ease-of-maintenance marketing.

With the introduction of marine resins, fiberglass boats could be built to any shape.   Its technical superiority relative to its cost was the major factor in its wide scale adoption and diffusion. After the invention of fiberglass boats, other improved methods like form sandwich, cold molded laminates, etc., came into vogue.


 Contessa Fiberglass Boat Introduced in England in the ’60’s, Pic Credit:

The Seventies witnessed major changes in sail and rig. Though intense competition among major custom sail makers of the world contributed to these changes, computerization had also begun to play a very large role. Sail and spar performance predictions were now being carried out by computer finite element analysis. The marketing of a new synthetic fabric, ‘Mylar’ by Dupont, had a strong impact on conventional cotton sails. The adoption of ‘Mylar’ was due to it being very cheap and for its speed enhancing features. These sails, however, could only be used in wind conditions of not more than 15-20 knots. Their initial ban by racing authorities also slowed their growth. The Seventies also witnessed the use of sophisticated gadgets and controls to enable greater command over the subtleties of sailing. Though these additions added dimension to the sport of sailing, they also served to intimidate sailors who were not accustomed to these controls.

images_Mylar Sails_Pinterest

Image of Mylar Sails, Pic Credit: Pinterest

It is interesting to conclude this chapter by relating developments in aircraft to those in yachts. Advanced wooden construction was incorporated by yacht builders from the design of the British fighter aircraft, ‘Mosquito’. In 1944, yacht builders were considering the potential of a new material called ‘Corolite’ used in fighter plane fuel jettison tanks. In the early Seventies, the adoption of miracle materials like Kevlar/Aramid by the aircraft industry also raised speculation over its adoption in the yacht industry and, since then, there has been aggressive monitoring of the evolving hi-technology nature of the aircraft industry.



The yachting industry as a whole is enormous. In 1981, this industry’s output was 8.25 billion U.S. Dollars.13 Yacht technology has been a derivative of the sport.  The drive for speed has been the most elastic factor with respect to technological innovations and changes.  Capt. William M. Nicholson, USN, Professor of Naval Construction at MIT, wrote, “The future of yacht technology lies not in the commercial world or in the design of warships, but in racing. Our national defense may not rest on the sail but a Russian challenge for the America’s Cup might well carry overtones of the race to the moon and put an even higher premium on scientific optimization and hull design”.

In the quest for speed, experiments are being carried out continuously in ‘composites’ – the ability to glue together dissimilar materials with epoxy resins to come out with the highest strength ratio. Tank and wind tunnel simulation tests are being carried out and an increasing spotlight is being cast upon a relatively neglected area, i.e. the keel.

Then, is there any limit to speed?  Yes, there is the hull speed or the maximum attainable speed of a boat which, under most wind conditions, cannot be obtained without perfections in the hull and the rig. “An improvement of as little as two percent in performance of speed made good to windward is tremendous since boats often lose or win on time margins of a few seconds.”14

By fanatically concentrating on speed, there is the growing risk of flouting basic factors like seaworthiness, stability, maneuverability and resistance to *rolling and *pitching. A lot of research is now being carried out on these factors. Recent experiments on hull dynamics, the solving of fabrication problems with robots, and process innovations in fiberglass are taking place.

Yacht technology, as far as it is applied to speed, has yet to mature. Other parts have aged like wood construction. But, as a sum of all its parts, this technology is bound to witness even brighter horizons.



Much water has flown under the bridge since the year 1982. In the 35+ years since this piece was first written, there have been several developments. The successful challenge by the Royal Perth Yacht Club of the America’s cup in 1983 saw the cup move away from the United States for the first time in 132 years. The much acclaimed Australian challenge was surrounded with controversy as they had introduced an innovative first-of-a-kind winged keel which was a key factor contributing to their success. This was a breakthrough of sorts and it also cleared the way for a spurt of innovations in the yachting world.


        The Famous Winged-Keel Used by Australia II in the 1983 America’s Cup Race,        Pic Credit:

The collapse of the Iron Curtain and the end of the bitter cold war in 1989 led to a global proliferation of the sport of yacht racing.  The America’s Cup, however, has resulted in ceaseless innovation in design of yachts. After wining the America’s Cup in 1987,  Dennis Conner was confronted by a hostile Deed-of-Gift challenge from Sir Michael Fay who fielded a single-masthead 27 meter yacht [previously America’s Cup races were fought using 12 meter boats] by correctly interpreting the rules. After much litigation, flabbergasted Connor decided to counter this threat by breaking tradition and fielding a twin hulled catamaran. This was the first time ever that an America’s Cup race fielded a catamaran. Under court appointed orders, the race was fought in 1988 which Conner easily won. It was indeed a most controversial time for the sport of yachting.

Between 1990 and 2017, there has been unending enhancements in yacht design, the most notable of these has been the introduction of hydrofoils; the inclusion of sensors and Human-Machine Interfaces (HMI). In the 2017 America’s Cup race, foils- which were previously the exception- became the rule. 2017 also saw the introduction of pedal powered boats.

Foiling Explained, Courtesy: YouTube, 1 Min 32 Seconds

The Art of Foils, Courtesy YouTube, 5 Minutes, 13 Seconds

So, what’s next?  Will it be boats with wings? Or rather, what remains? For one, there will be increasing focus on rudders, daggerboards (a retractable keel that can move sideways) and the Human-Machine Interface (HMI) which displays sensor information.  And, finally, in this era of Artificial Intelligence (AI), if autonomous driving is gaining ground, how far will we be from autonomous sailing ?

Can you imagine racing a boat in which the machine takes over or circumnavigating the globe in an autonomous boat? Well, it may be just around the corner.



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Shakti is a former banker, management consultant and I.T professional. He can be reached at

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