Who Invented the Sailboat & When?

Who Invented the Sailboat & When? | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

August 30, 2022

Sailboats are a common sight on the water today. But how old is the basic design, and where do sailboats originally come from?

Nobody knows who invented the sailboat or exactly when, but archaeologists believe the first sailing workboats originated some 6,000 years ago. The modern sailboat began taking shape in the late 1800s and reached peak development after World War Two.

In this article, we’ll go over the origins of the sailboat and how simple wind-powered rafts evolved into the advanced and graceful sailboats we know today. We’ll cover all the major milestones in sailboat development and the origins of popular rigs like the Bermuda rig.

We sourced the information used in this article from credible historians and public archives.


Table of contents

Origin of Workboats

The sailboat is one of the oldest forms of boats in existence—but it wasn’t the first. Humans have probably been building boats and basic rafts for at least 6,000 years, using materials such as hollowed-out logs and bushels of buoyant reeds.

Reed boats date back to ancient Egypt, where people built basic reed canoes and more complex wooden boats. Early boats were pushed along rivers with a long pole or rowed with oars. But soon, people figured out that it was possible to harness the wind.

First Sailboats

Like many inventions, the sailboat probably originated in ancient Egypt. Around 4000 BC, Egyptians assembled a simple rigging system and suspended a piece of cloth in the air to pull basic log boats along rivers.

These vessels were long and narrow, and their simple rigging was difficult to control. However, the Egyptians had discovered that wind could do the work instead of oars.

By 3000 BC, the idea had spread extensively in the region, and sailboat design became more advanced. Most sailing still took place inland, and square sails became common throughout the ancient world.

Early Ocean-Going Sailboats

By 2000 BC, sailboats had grown in size and usefulness. Humans learned to maneuver reliably under wind power, and boat designs became more durable and efficient.

At this point, ocean trade networks were established all throughout the Mediterranean. Inland sailing was still quite common, and drawings from the era depict sailboats with both sails and oars for auxiliary propulsion.

The Romans were key in the development of sailing warships, which wielded archers and boarding parties armed with swords. Roman sailing vessels were also powered by sails and oars, though sailing was the primary method of propulsion when traveling long distances.


The Vikings were famous for developing hardy and seaworthy craft crewed by rowers and equipped with sails. The Vikings sailed extensively and settled many places with their vessels. After this point, sailboat development remained roughly the same until the 1400s.

Tall Ship Development

In the 1500s and 1600s, tall ships were well underway to becoming the dominant form of both merchant and sailing ships. The British, Spanish, and Chinese were notable early adopters of these types of ships, albeit with extensive variations.

These vessels would continue to increase in size, speed, and effectiveness as the decades progressed. Tall ships of the 17th and 18th centuries were the finest and most capable ever built, and several original examples remain seaworthy today.

Small Sailboat Development

Not much changed on small workboats until the 1600s. Most developments happened with larger ships, which had much greater economic and strategic value. However, during the 1600s or 1700s, the first Bermuda-rigged sailboats were developed.

The Bermuda rig, also known as the Marconi rig, would go on to be the most common rig type on all kinds of recreational sailboats. About a century later, the first yacht club was founded in Ireland—suggesting that recreational sailing first came into prominence around this time.

In the mid-1600s, recreational sailing of small boats became a popular activity for nobles in England. Documented evidence reveals that sailing up and down the Thames River was a popular pastime for royalty, and they developed some of the earliest known regattas.

19th and 20th Century Sailboat Design

The 19th and 20th centuries contributed the most to what we’d consider ‘modern’ sailboat design. During this era, world-famous marine architects and boatbuilders such as Nathanael Greene Herreshoff perfected small and medium-sized wooden sailboat designs.

By the 20th century, sailing workboats were not nearly as common as they were during the previous era. Instead, sailboats were used primarily for recreation and exploration. Some local fishing activity still took place, but sailing became more of a lifestyle than a necessity during this era.

The sailboat cabin was also popularized around this time, as the need for an open working space and cargo hold largely disappeared. Early sailboat cabins were sparse and rarely included standing headroom. Instead, simple folding canvas berths and a small wood or coal stove were the only amenities you could expect.

Modern Fiberglass Sailboat Era

The fiberglass boat era began after World War Two. Fiberglass, a material used extensively during the war, could easily replace planks or plywood in boatbuilding—and several companies such as Catalina sprung up during the 1950s and 1960s.

The decades between 1950 and 1990 were the height of fiberglass production boat building. Sailing became a popular pastime, and average Americans could eventually afford to purchase their own 25 to 35-foot sailboat. The vast majority of these sailboats featured extensive cabin amenities.

Most of these vessels were Bermuda (Marconi) sloops constructed with fiberglass and with varying levels of interior and exterior flash. Tens of thousands of boats were built by dozens of brands, and the majority of these vessels still remain on the water.

Most sailboats today were constructed during this era. Many famous designs from the fiberglass period are still produced—sometimes by the same company, sometimes by a new company or conglomerate. These vessels are fundamentally the same as sailboats from the early 20th century, but they require much less maintenance and tend to sail more comfortably.

Who Invented the Sailboat & When?
Daniel Wade

Daniel Wade

I've personally had thousands of questions about sailing and sailboats over the years. As I learn and experience sailing, and the community, I share the answers that work and make sense to me, here on Life of Sailing.

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