An Amateur Anthropological View of Sailing…

Us and water…
As a sailor I’m given to occasionally ponder the realms of early homo sapiens and our dependant relationship to water. It is not hard to picture a shoreside village under an overhanging escarpment carved out by vanished glaciers. A wisp of smoke drifting idly out from the shadows under the cliff face, it’s source the fire that is never allowed to go out. People working hides, sharpening stones, and hanging fish to dry in the hot sun. Children splashing in the nearby water. Some of the older kids playing stand-on-the-log.  Of course these are only imaginings, the ancient record is incomplete – full of deep, dark mysteries and unanswered questions. One point of consideration, I’m certain you are aware of, is most species of mammals can swim – generally from birth. Even if they don’t like being in the water there’s very little sputtering. Very little fuss. Were we like that once? Automatic survival swimmers? Are the children mentioned above?

Current research shows that human babies have both a ‘Swim Reflex’ and a ‘Dive Reflex’.
The dive reflex
This reflex, also called the bradycardic response, causes babies to hold their breath and open their eyes when submerged, says Jeffrey Wagener, a pediatric pulmonologist in Denver. The response weakens as a baby gets older.
The swimming reflex
Until around 6 months, babies placed in water tummy-side down will move their arms and legs in a swimming motion. When the swimming reflex and the dive reflex are both engaged, a baby can look like a natural swimmer.
The above is not to say that babies are natural survival swimmers. They are not, but the traits are present at a very early age and remain until we grow older and un-learn them.
So what does this have to do with the history of sailing? In my mind a lot! It bespeaks our ancient and intuitive relationship with water.
Beside the need for water itself, an abundance of food for the hunter / gather culture was one of the primary attractions of life along the shoreline. Fishing, hunting, protection, and along some sea coast areas – warmth are just some of the advantages provided by shoreside encampment.  In our long, lost history of shoreside habitation there is little doubt that homo sapiens spent a great amount of time in, on and under the water. Our early ancestors certainly knew the value of logs, gourds and skin-bladders in aiding floatation and there is no doubt that a primitive person attempting to cross a body of water on a tree trunk or some other means of artificial buoyancy was set to by the changing winds and ended up landing elsewhere than their destination. Such an event most likely was accompanied by a great deal of struggle, much consternation and no little concern. But the wind would have it’s way. And the first windward journeyer would never know they were so..

As people began to save favorite logs for specific crossings or even to fasten wood, vines, thatches, and grasses into the first high tech water transports (what we today would call primitive vessels) they would have studied the situation enough to know there were better means of propulsion than hands and feet (especially in varmint infested waters). It is no great stretch of the imagination to go from those unwanted windward travels as mentioned above to picking a course with favorable wind and propelling the vessel with greater ease.

Primitive transport raft carrying gourds and cut willow branches. The “mast” allows for sail material to be raised in a favorable wind. The paddle serves as a rudder.

 I can picture those early humans, the inquisitive, survival orientated minds with furrowed brows placing a curled dry leaf in the water along side a small stick and watching the relative passage of the two. I can imagine the sounds of stone adzes working thick logs. The shavings of cedar scattered about the work area. The smell of fires as those same logs were burned hollow.

Picking a course with favorable wind and propelling the vessel with greater ease…

Archeology tells us that logboats excavated from bogs and lakes of northern Europe are over 9,000 years old. Although researchers are still debating the capabilities of the first human voyagers, who traveled the waters of Southeast Asia at least 45,000 years ago. The point being that ancient humans and their ability to travel on and across water has a deep and well hidden history. Anthropologists tell us there were generation, upon generation of technological advances starting from the hollowed log or lashed reeds, which over time and through careful engineering, evolved into more advanced mode of water travel.

Graffiti boat found on Malta ca. 1600 B.C and from Cyprus, 1200 100 BC

It strikes me that the prow of the vessel above was probably not by chance. Consider a human paddling this craft across a body of water. In windless conditions the high prow would be of little consequence except for the extra weight, but in favorable wind conditions the effort expended by the pilot / paddler would be greatly reduced. Unfortunately like all sailors our primitive paddler is faced with the difficulty of adverse winds. On one hand it’s good to know this is a problem over 45,000 years old…
Prehistoric Egyptian ship drawings
When we look back 5,000 years in the archaeological record the first remnants of Egyptian sailing ships appear. The size of these vessels, complete with an oar deck and a sail flown between two large logs fastened to form a large V, allow us to ascertain these remnants from 2900 B.C. were not the proto-type of their times. So what were the ancient designs that led from boats to ships? A hard question to answer in that all the materials commonly used in ancient vessel construction was soft, porous and could not withstand the ravages of time. But that doesn’t limit our imaginations from filling in the gaps using what little info does exist from archeology and anthropology.
Take that high prow paddling vessel above, sharpen the stem, add the technology of braided line, and evolve the mathematical equations of triangles. Combine advanced weaving with new  bundling techniques. Apply that weaving to wind-catching mats (sails) and change the paddling / steering process through generations of trail and error. Soon water travel opens the gateway to human curiosity and the exploration of the near horizon. 
Ancient Egyptian Vessel

When we reflect upon sailing history it is easy to think on the large ventures, the big names ~ the movers and shakers of written record, but in my mind it is the dim areas, the unknowns, the early human watching leaf and stick move across the water’s surface, which holds the key to the intrigue, mystery, and imagination of how sailing developed. When laying on my vessel’s deck under a clear and moon-less night sky I look to the prominent stars and know they are the same points of light that the earilest of sailors and navigators fixed their sights upon and crossed  into the great unknowns…
Single pilot / navigator sailing vessel – early Mesopotamia carving

About J. Foster Fanning

Photographer, Fire Chief, Commodore of RPSC Sail Club, Skier, Biker, Hiker, Wanna'be beach bum, Writer, Father, Grandfather and a bit more... 1st mate Catherine Brown & I spend about 70 days a year board, which includes one month long cruise annually. Our vessel is transportable and while we maintain a permanent buoy on Lake Roosevelt, near Kettle Falls extended cruises on the Salish Sea are part of our cruising grounds.
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