While just about any boat should be able to float in the water, boats require some form of propulsion to move around. From the beginning of humanity’s naval voyages to the modern day, we’ve been finding new ways to move a boat through water, sometimes crossing distances at speeds that were unimaginable on foot or by horse.

The earliest system practiced would have been either oars or sails. Oars, fashioned out of whatever wood was available, could propel a small canoe through calm waters with ease, allowing for the first trade systems to develop in areas like the Nile River or the Tigris and Euphrates river system. The Polynesians and Melanesians would use enlarged canoes, known today as catamarans or outriggers, to cross the seas that separate Asia from Australia and Its surrounding islands, with the first humans in Australia arriving around 40000 years ago.

Wind, Water and Sail

While oars were the dominant system of ship propulsion in many cultures, many noticed how the wind could blow around light fabrics and decided to apply it to their ship designs, creating the first sailboats. While most small boats still had oars as a backup in case of inclement weather, the sail gave boats the power to move through rougher seas, as well as providing more propulsive force than a team of rowers. The sailboat allowed the aforementioned Melanesians to sail from Australasia all the way to Madagascar, crossing the Indian Ocean at a time when most boats couldn’t go past coastal waters.

While most early sails were square designs, the sail quickly began to diversify into a variety of shapes and materials, with triangular and trapezoidal designs becoming more common on smaller vessels due to their more aerodynamic and efficient properties. As shipbuilding improved, sailboats from a technologically resurgent Europe began to explore a world that was previously out of reach. Modern trade routes began to develop, new continents were chartered and the world became a smaller place.

However, there are some disadvantages to sails, the main one being that they rely entirely on wind currents, and in larger ships, direction. Trade ships frequently had to make diversions or stop dead in the water as the wind stopped or changed direction, which could slow down trade voyages and important news by months at a time. Clearly, another system was required for when the sail failed.

Coal, Fire and Steam

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the steam engine became the new paradigm in ship propulsion. The sheer weight and inefficiency of early steam engines didn’t matter that much when it offered a reliable means of movement in windless waters. Nevertheless, most early ‘steamers’ still had sails alongside their paddlers. The paddle is effectively identical to the water wheel used in mills, and the paddle has been used with human power since its creation in the 4th century. However, the power needed to move heavier ships only came with the arrival of industrialisation.

Two propulsion systems were in vogue in the 19th Century: paddles and propellers, with paddle steamers becoming a common sight on many waterways. Many of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s most famous ship designs, such as the SS Great Eastern and Western, used paddles for transatlantic voyages in the first half of the 1800s.

Nevertheless, these early ship designs were transitory phases between the old and new. Both the Eastern and Western had sailing masts in case of an engine malfunction or a lack of confidence in this new-fangled technology. Many of these early steamships were constructed with the same wood that had been used for centuries. It took several decades before someone thought to build ships out of metal.

These ‘ironclads’ became the new paradigm in ship design, both for warfare and transportation. Their armoured hulls made the impact of cannonballs trivial, and their less fragile and corrosive hulls made maintenance easier. However, the added weight meant that sails were no longer viable, and the steam engine became the dominant method of moving these massive ships.

As the power of these engine designs increased, so did the ship’s mass. Ocean liners got bigger and bigger throughout the 19th century, and culminated with the RMS Titanic and her sister ships Olympic and Brittanic. While the Titanic became a legend through a terrible accident, her sister ships served for much of the early 20th century with distinction.

By the 1890s, the paddle design was beginning to lose favour with ship designs. It was bulky and inefficient, and the screw propeller was starting to receive attention. Compared to paddles, propellers were more streamlined and efficient, as well as taking up less space on the ship. The screw propeller wasn’t anything new: Archimedes designed his own screw, which was put to use in irrigation, and the propeller was used in experimental watercraft designs such as the Turtle (first submersible) and the Civetta (first conventional design to use propellers).

To this day, the propeller remains the most common propulsion system among most motorised boats, while sailboats have carved out their own niche. Even the paddle and oars survive in various specialised watercraft (rowboats, paddle steamers). Regardless of whatever method is better now, they were all the lifeline of sailors, fishers and tradesmen for millennia and served their roles well.

You Charter Direct provides both sailboats and motorised boats for trips around the Mediterranean and Caribbean

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