It’s hard to envision a world without boats, but it wasn’t always this way. The first boats were dugout canoes, which evolved into the sailing vessels we know today. These vessels were essential for exploration and trade in ancient civilizations. The catamaran came even before the galley, which the Romans and Greeks used.
Anatolia, Asia Minor, and Persia were hotbeds of innovation in ancient times. These regions spawned fantastically gifted sailors who changed the course of history and world patterns. The Scythians of ancient Iran were considered the most sophisticated mariners in history. Their swift ships and fierce fighting tactics were influential in warfare, but they were eventually “swept away” by their neighbors. First, they were defeated by the Medes and then the successive empires of Persia and Greece.
Early Western Society
The Greeks profoundly affected sailing techniques, especially with their warships. The Greeks built trireme ships (named for the three women who designed them). These vessels had three banks of oars; one at the stern, one in the middle, and one along each side. The trireme could carry over 150 marines and travel at speeds of up to 5 knots. This speed was attained through the square sails and light ballast.
Sailing in Egypt
In these early days of sailing, the Egyptians were possibly the most skilled sailors in the region. In Egypt, myths and gods were created to explain certain natural phenomena due to their belief in a supreme being responsible for everything. Herds of hippopotami were believed to be Ra’s creatures who defended him against his enemies, thus becoming a source of terror among them.
Persia and the Scythians
The Persians and Scythians also had their share of famous sailors. The Persians, considered the most civilized of all ancient societies, inherited the Sumerian’s love of literature and art and mathematics, architecture, science, and irrigation. The Scythians invented a precursor to the computer called a “pile.” They also gave humanity our word “shield,” which comes from their word “šahr,” meaning scabbard. Controlling their world was one of the most significant challenges for the Scythian sailors. They fought the Medes and eventually succumbed to the Persian empire.
The Arabs influenced the art of navigation at an early date. The Arab seafaring man was a great trader and navigator of his time. He was also an accomplished poet, musician, architect, astronomer, geographer, and mathematician. He had been at sea for over two centuries before he united the whole of Egypt under one ruler in the seventh century A.D.
Other Historical Sailors
Other famous sailors include Zheng He of China, the great pirate Francis Drake, Admiral Anson and Captain Cook of England, Captain Cook of Great Britain, and Magellan of Portugal. Commodore Matthew C. Perry also cannot be left out. His fleet sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1853 after an absence from the country of almost two hundred years. He signed treaties opening Japan to foreign trade and ended hundreds of years of isolationism.
One of the most famous mariners belonging to the same period was Christopher Columbus. He was a tiny little man with immense courage and determination. He spent his life traveling in pursuit of new lands to explore, but he never lost sight of his main goal: finding a western route to Asia and the Spice Islands. The first person to accurately describe prehistoric man was James Cook (1728-1779), who, during his journeys in the Pacific Ocean, charted many islands and discovered numerous new plants and animals.