The Effect of the Lateen Sail on the Age of Exploration

During the fourth millennium BCE, Egyptians relied heavily on the Nile River and the river system that fed into it. Thus, Egyptians developed boats that took advantage of the northerly winds along the Nile to transport goods quickly across long distances (McGrail). These boats typically had a rectangular sail, suitable for going with the wind. However, as ships became more widely used for long ocean voyages, new sails emerged to suit these needs. The lateen sail was the most notable advancement to the sail, as it enabled explorers during the Age of Exploration to discover new lands throughout the world.

The lateen sail provided many benefits over earlier sail designs, but most notably, it allowed ships to sail closer to the wind, which enabled Mediterranean civilizations to begin exploring and traveling longer distances (Campbell). Lateen sails differed from earlier “square” sails in that they “present a curved surface to the wind and [derive] its motive force from the pressure differential between the convex and concave sides of the sail” (Campbell). By using this method, ships with lateen sails sailed closer to the wind than “square” sails. Although most of the historical evidence depicting the lateen sail originates from the Mediterranean, some sources suggest that the lateen sail originates from Arab civilizations who invaded the Mediterranean in the seventh century (Whitewright). Others suggest the lateen sail made its first appearances in the Mediterranean in the second century CE, which predates the Arab invasion. Regardless of where the lateen sail first emerged, it carried great significance for maritime exploration for many centuries.

In addition to allowing ships to sail closer to the wind, the lateen sail also made ships more maneuverable. The increase in maneuverability is due in large part to the halyard system that uses blocks, or pulleys, to provide enough purchase to raise the large lateen sail. Lines ran through these blocks, from the stern, to the top of the mast, and down to the sail (Whitewright). By using this type of halyard system to raise and lower the sail, crews could reef the sail, thus making it smaller and depowering the sail in harsh winds. This could not be done with previous “square” sails. The increased flexibility of the lateen sail benefitted explorers in later centuries, most notably those from Portugal, as they were ideal for the caravel ships that travelled along the West African Coast and across the Atlantic in the 1400s (Schwarz).

These caravel ships performed well with the lateen sail under long voyages due to the speed the sail generated. In turn, these ships became suitable for use by explorers who relied on the ships’ shallow drafts and relatively small size to navigate new waterways (Hays). In addition to the ships used to explore the West African Coast, Columbus used ships with lateen and square sails for his journey across the Atlantic, which allowed for speed, maneuverability, and a large cargo capacity (Schwarz). Ultimately, the lateen sail enabled explorers to discover new regions of the world in a way that traditional “square” sails would not have been able to.


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