45 Years of Sailing

On SAIL’s 45th anniversary, we look back at 45 inventions, developments and refinements that changed the way we sail. The year is 1970. Richard Nixon is in the White House. Men wear long sideburns, oversized sunglasses, medallions, velour shirts and platform shoes—

The year is 1970. Richard Nixon is in the White House. Men wear long sideburns, oversized sunglasses, medallions, velour shirts and platform shoes—let’s not mention the hairstyles. It’s a year of eyewateringly tight pants for both genders, preferably bellbottoms. A gallon of gas costs $0.39, the average income is $9,400, unemployment is 3.5 percent, and the average price of a new house is a little over $23,000. The Beatles are breaking up. Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin die from drug overdoses. Concorde goes supersonic, and the Boeing 747 makes its first transatlantic flight. The United States invades Cambodia, and four protesting students are killed at Kent State University. The voting age is dropped from 21 to 18, and the population of the United States tops 200 million. IBM unveils the floppy disk. Thor Heyerdahl sails across the Atlantic on a papyrus raft. The 12-Meters Heritage and Intrepid fight it out for the honor of defending the Americas’ Cup, in Newport, Rhode Island. Elsewhere in the U.S.A., boatbuilding is fast becoming a major industry, and sailing is on the cusp of a boom … which is where SAIL comes in, with issue No. 1 appearing on the newsstands in February.

In the intervening years, plenty has changed in the world at large and in the world of sailing. We’ve come up with a list of 45 developments, inventions and trends that have had an effect on the way we sail. It’s by no means exhaustive, we could have gone on and on, but you know what they say about nostalgia.


Satphones and satellite communications now allow mariners to maintain contact with those on land from virtually anywhere in the world. While in some ways this can be seen as a bad thing (the notion of going to sea and “unplugging” completely is becoming harder and harder) it also allows cruisers to stay in touch via SSB e-mail communication and phone calls (though the latter is much more expensive), and receive much needed weather information, no matter where they are.

Round-the-World Racing

When Blondie Hasler and the other four solo sailors taking part in the 1960 OSTAR set out from Plymouth, England, to race to New York City, they were the only boats in all the world doing so. It was pretty much the same thing when Sir Robin Knox Johnston and eight other competitors set sail from the UK in 1968 at the start of the Golden Globe round-the-world race, and for the first Whitbread. Today, of course, distance races—shorthanded and otherwise—in which boats cross entire oceans or even circumnavigate the globe are, if not routine, certainly commonplace, so that at any given moment there are any number of sailors hundreds of miles off soundings racing to be the first to get someplace very far away. As incredible as today’s feats of seamanship are, however, let us never forget that courage and tenacity of those pioneers who first showed the way by literally sailing off into the unknown.


The days of navigating with paper charts are behind us. The convenience and accuracy of electronic charts have made them the technology of choice for almost all boaters, so much so that in late 2013 the government announced it would stop printing traditional charts. (Though print-on-demand service is still available for those who wish to carry paper charts, which is recommended when cruising long distances.)

Water Ballast

Water ballast came to be employed on many boats designed for shorthanded ocean racing. Pumping water “uphill” to outboard tanks improves initial stability, and even now, when canting keels have largely supplanted water ballast in racers, tanks in the bow and stern are often used to aid trim when running and reaching. This is too complex and expensive for the typical cruising boat, but many smaller, trailerable boats use water as ballast, which is then dropped when the boat is recovered.

Boat Sharing 

In today’s busy world the time we have for sailing, even for a couple of days, is scarce. That is why boat sharing is a very practical idea, especially financially. For boaters who love the sport but can’t invest fully in their own vessel, it’s another opportunity to get out on the water. With companies like BoatSetter.com, Boatbound.co and Cruzin.com providing services like on-water assistance and insurance should something bad happen, owners can offset the cost of boat ownership without having to worry too much about what might happen to their vessel when it is rented, or commit fully to a bareboat charter program. In the end, it is a best-of-both-worlds situation. Will boat sharing eventually compete neck and neck with bareboat charter companies? Only time will tell.

Modern Life Jackets

Take a few moments to check out the bulky orange lifejackets on a commercial passenger vessel and say a word of thanks. Those were once cutting-edge safety gear. No, strike that: they are vastly superior to what was cutting-edge safety gear when the first issue of SAIL hit newsstands, which is why few if any sailors ever wore them. How many lives have been saved with the development of comfortable lifejackets—inflatable and otherwise—that sailors actually wear on a regular basis will never be known.

Laminated Sailcloth

Since time immemorial, sails were made of woven fabric. Sailmakers were forced to accommodate the distortions that inevitably result when multiple loads are applied along the warp and weft of a weave. Laminated sails do away with all that by allowing sailmakers to lay load-bearing threads directly along the load paths themselves. This allows for the creation of sails that are lighter than ever and capable of holding a precise aerodynamic shape in all kinds of wind conditions. Best of all, what was once exclusive to grand-prix racers has trickled down so that cruisers can enjoy the benefits of this technology as well.

Mainsail Furling

While not quite as revolutionary as roller-furling headsails, furling mainsails, both in-mast and in-boom, have helped inflate the dimensions of today’s cruising boats relative to their crews and cruising boats past. They’ve also made it easier to fit an afternoon or evening on the water, or a quick solo spin, into a busy schedule. Granted, these systems can be tricky on occasion. There’s also no getting around that lack of roach with an in-mast system. But then again, if the alternative is not going sailing at all, you still come out way ahead.

Bareboat Charter

For years, the only way to visit the world’s far-flung cruising grounds was to save money, buy a boat and sever shoreside connections before raising sails and heading over the horizon. That all changed in the late 1960s, when Charlie and Ginny Cary started a little company in the British Virgin Islands called The Moorings that had a fleet of six 35ft Pearson boats that sailors could rent and cruise on their own. The notion caught on, the company grew, and others were started. Today there are numerous companies with bareboat fleets all over the world, and sailors of all skill levels can live out their dreams more easily.

Inflatable Tenders

Once upon a time all yacht tenders were rigid prams and skiffs—heavy, unstable and hard to stow on deck. But the rise of the modern inflatable dinghy—from small roll-away boats to larger RIBs—has been inexorable. They are lighter, faster, much more stable, have greater load-carrying capacity and are favored by all but the most hardcore traditionalists.


Perhaps one of the most important advances in safety technology has been the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, known to most as an EPIRB. Considered by many to be nearly as important as a liferaft, EPIRBs send out an electronic signal that allows rescue crews to track your boat’s location via satellite, and get where they need to be faster and with greater accuracy than they were able to in the days of radio Mayday calls and flares. Since they came on the scene, EPIRBs have saved thousands of mariners.


For a skipper making a night passage through a busy shipping lane or crowded waterway, Automatic Identification System (AIS) technology is a great stress reliever. Gone are the days of peering out into the darkness and trying to judge the course and speed of an oncoming container ship or fishing trawler. Thanks to AIS, all commercial ship traffic and most recreational vessels around you can be easily identified, and their speed and course determined, making cruising through a crowded waterway, even during the day, that much safer.

Lithium-ion Batteries

Lithium-ion batteries are both lighter and more efficient than typical lead-acid batteries. Generally, they have 70 percent less volume and weight, and reach a full charge much more quickly. They are significantly more expensive then lead-acid batteries, but as the technology develops and the cost of materials and manufacturing goes down, that point may soon be moot.

Powered Winches

Few things have added more to the comfort and ease of cruising shorthanded than the powered winches and windlasses. Gone are the days of grinding a winch until your back and arms ache just to get the main up, or having to pull in chain hand-over-hand to haul your anchor onboard before setting sail. Powered winches and windlasses have made it that much easier for cruisers to point their bows at the horizon and go.

Smart Phones and Tablets

Although created by landlubbers for landlubbers, smart phones and tablets are now an intregral part of the sailing experience. Whether it’s calling ahead to arrange a slip at a marina, checking an app to make sure your boat isn’t dragging at anchor, navigating or making a satellite call back home from off soundings, these gismizos are fast becoming as important a piece of sailing kit as a sharp knife.

Roller-furling Headsails

On the one hand, roller-furling headsails have made sailing safer and easier than ever: no longer is it necessary to go up onto the bow to change headsails—a dicey proposition, at best, when the wind picks up. On the other hand, they’ve been a true game-changer in terms of sailboat design, by allowing smaller crews to handle bigger and bigger rigs. Whether it’s an Open 60 solo racer or a 50ft “couple’s” cruiser, the requisite rigs would be impossible to handle with hank-on headsails. Roller furling has not only changed the way we sail, but the entire sailing landscape.

Marine Refrigeration

This is without doubt one of the most important developments in the history of sailing. No more hauling mountains of block ice to your boat to keep beer cold. ‘Nuff said. (Unless, of course, your name is Don Street.)

LED Lighting

LED lights take up less room than incandescent bulbs, emit less heat, use less power and produce more light—all of which makes them ideal for use on boats, where space is limited, power is scarce and keeping things cool is a challenge. Though the technology behind LED lights has been around since the early 1960s, it’s only been in the last few decades that costs have gone down enough to make them a practical and affordable replacement for incandescent bulbs.


Many engines on sailboats still turn their propellers via shafts, but it’s a technology that seems increasingly archaic. Saildrive legs are much more compact and do away with the need for a packing gland or shaft seal, and with the need to make sure the engine and shaft are perfectly aligned. They’re also much easier to install, which is why boatbuilders love them—another reason for their popularity and why we’re sure to see many more in years to come.


Back in the day, there wasn’t that big a difference between daysailers, cruisers and grand-prix racers. All that began to change, however, with the advent of fin keels and planing hulls, and since then has been literally blown out of the water with full-on foiling. In only a few short years, foiling boats have become as much a part of racing as spinnakers. (Hard to believe that organizers of the 34th America’s Cup actually tried to prevent it.) Today, even the humble Laser (which is a year older than SAIL) can take flight with ease (see page 50 for details). Truly, the sailing world will never be that same.

Satellite Navigation

When SAIL was first published there wasn’t a bluewater sailor anywhere who wasn’t proficient at celestial navigation. Now there are many who don’t know the first thing about it. Since becoming readily available in the early 1990s, GPS receivers have vastly increased the number of sailors who aspire to sail offshore. They have become the most important navigational tool for coastal sailors as well.

Global Weather Communications

Gone are the days when sailors could only pray to fickle deities and hope for the best weather-wise when setting out on a long passage or distance race. Not only has meteorology greatly improved, offering useful forecasts out seven days or more, but the means for gathering forecasts, from radio weatherfaxes to modern digitally transmitted gridded binary files (GRIBs), makes it possible to monitor developments from anywhere on the planet.

Self-tailing Winches

Time was that in order to winch in a line, you had to tail with one hand while grinding with the other—that or have someone tail for you. Standing up by the mast trying to crank in a little halyard tension after reefing the main? Sorry, mate, no “one hand for the ship” for you! Same thing if you wanted to use two hands to grind in that last bit of genoa sheet. And whatever you do, don’t even think of letting go of that tail, or you’ll have to do the whole thing over again. Bottom line: even more than multi-speed winches, self-tailers have transformed the way we handle running rigging.

High-Modulus Rope

Lightweight low-stretch cordage has transformed modern rigging. Beyond using it for common running rigging, riggers now employ high-modulus rope in place of steel wire or rod in standing rigging, and even in place of metal hardware to secure blocks, sheet leads and other fittings. Sailmakers, meanwhile, are using it to build luffs for free-flying furling headsails. Soon it seems there will be little metal left in a sailboat’s rig, which, ironically, is how things were centuries ago.


A hardcore clique of performance-obsessed sailors and inventors have been messing around with wingsails since the 1960s, but it wasn’t till the AC45 and AC72 catamarans brought the rigid wingsail to the world in the leadup to the 34th America’s Cup that it was taken seriously. If you’re looking for out-and-out speed on two or three hulls, there’s nothing like a rigid airfoil. But for cruising, the hard wingsail is a non-starter, and the soft wingsail is still an outlier.

Bow Thrusters

Bow thrusters have made getting on and off a dock easier than ever, have made boats more maneuverable, and have boosted the confidence of skippers everywhere. Now thrusters are lighter, less obtrusive and more affordable, and there is no reason to think this technology won’t be helping boaters get into and out of tight spots for a long while to come.

Canting Keels

Naval architecture has forever been a dance between theory and materials. For example, designers have long understood it pays to get weight as far to windward as possible when sailing closehauled, but were limited by technology in doing so. Low-tech solutions have included hiking racks, water ballast, trapezes and, let us not forget, sand bags. Not until the advent of carbon fiber and other high-modulus materials were naval architects able to design boats with keels that shift side to side in a safe reliable way. The result has been sailing performance beyond the wildest dreams of their predecessors. You can’t help but wonder what old Capt. Nat Herreshoff would have thought of all this.

Asymmetric Spinnakers

The first asymmetric spinnakers appeared as “cruising chutes” or “drifters” for lazy cruisers who wanted to fly big full-cut lightweight headsails downwind, but couldn’t be bothered messing with poles. Now the A-sail, as it is popularly known, has chased the traditional spinnaker toward the brink of extinction and is the chute of choice on both cruising boats and in the most popular modern racing classes.

Transom Swim Steps

First came open transoms on racing boats. Then came sugar-scoop swim steps on reverse transoms followed by the drop-down swim platforms that are now found aboard pretty much every cruising boat currently in production. Hard to believe there was once a time when the only way to climb aboard was via a skinny little ladder, or that the only place to sunbathe was—gasp!—on deck or in the cockpit. As a practical matter, easier access to the water also means an easier was of getting out of it should anyone ever fall overboard.

Wind Generators

As the granddaddy of alternative power sources, both ashore and on boats, wind generators were the first technology that helped free modern cruising sailors from the tyranny of the shore-power cord. The first examples installed on yachts were noisy and not terribly productive. These days they are both quiet and efficient.

DSC Radio

Letting potential rescuers know you’re in trouble is only part of the equation when summoning help in an emergency. You’ve also got to let them know where you are, which is no mean feat when your boat is, say, on fire or sinking. Digital Selective Calling, or DSC, takes care of all that by sending out an SOS via VHF radio that includes a rapid-fire burst of digital information that includes who you are and your exact location. DSC is a true quantum leap in distress-call technology rivaled only by the invention of radio itself.

Carbon Fiber

Apart from looking sexy, carbon fiber has many uses, and not just on high-end racing boats. Its mechanical and fatigue strength combined with its light weight makes it ideal for masts and booms, for strengthening and stiffening hull sections even in production cruising boats, and for building tough, lightweight hulls and decks for racing boats and high-end cruisers—at a price. Match that with its uses in sailcloth and standing rigging, and you have a material that will continue to influence boat design and construction.

Small Boat Radar

This was the first real breakthrough in “electronic navigation” on recreational vessels. Once radar sets were small and efficient enough to fit on yachts, sailors were freed from the terror of creeping through fog relying only on their ears to avoid rocks and other boats. Having embraced the technology, modern navigators have never looked back.

Solar Panels

They are ubiquitous now, but solar panels were a rare sight on boats until the mid-1990s. Since then, plummeting prices and soaring efficiency have made them an essential component of every bluewater cruiser’s electrical system.

MOB Recovery 

Walk down a dock and count the number of sailboats that don’t have a Lifesling strapped to the pushpit; not many, right? That’s just one example of how lifesaving technology and techniques have changed since 1970, not only in terms of recovering overboard crew, but in locating them. Waterproof strobes, GPS- and AIS-enabled electronic locator beacons, and the development of new recovery techniques mean you have a much greater chance of rescue today.

Small Marine Diesels

Repurposed truck or tractor diesel engines powered many bigger sailboats through the mid 20th century, but in 1970, the most common auxiliary on a new production sailboat in the United States was the Atomic 4 gasoline engine. Driven by the expanding European market and its dislike of dangerous gas vapors on board, the demand for small diesels ballooned through the 1970s, ushering in unprecedented reliability and fuel economy—to say nothing of safety.

Low-Drag Propellers

Along with more efficient underwater appendages, low-drag propellers have been a key development for performance-minded sailors. Whether it’s folding or feathering, a low-drag propeller can cut hours off passage times and can make the difference between sailing and motoring in light air.

Sailing Rallies

In 1970, crossing an ocean under sail was the stuff of most sailors’ wildest dreams. Bluewater cruising was still a young sport, with a small but slowly expanding core of adventurous sailors wanting to push their sailing beyond coastal passages. In the late 1980s, a savvy cruiser named Jimmy Cornell came up with the idea for a cruise-in-company across the Atlantic Ocean and thus was born the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers. From that sprang the numerous other rallies that have given countless cruisers the confidence to spread their wings.

Accommodations Belowdecks

As revolutionary as changes in sailboat design have been topsides, in many ways they pale in comparison to the changes belowdecks. Thanks to new materials, a new aesthetic, and computer-aided engineering and design, the living spaces aboard modern cruising boats have expanded to a point that would have been inconceivable 45 years ago. While some may miss the dark, cozy “caves” sailors once called home, there’s no denying the appeal of hull windows, spacious head compartments and standing headroom.

Breathable Foul Weather Gear

People sail in all sorts of weather—wind, rain, snow, whatever nature might throw at you—so you have to be prepared. It’s no surprise that foul weather gear is almost as synonymous with the sport as sails are. Modern advances in material and fabric allow today’s sailors to wear the most comfortable, waterproof and breathable foulies we’ve seen. Gone are the days of the yellow slicker that made you feel like you were wearing your own rubber sauna. These days comfort and style is the name of the game.

Rope Clutches

Another development that allows sailors to do with one hand what once took two, rope clutches have evolved in recent years into true engineering marvels. Better still, the latest clutches are as easy on the lines they secure as they are on the sailors tending them. Just be sure you never forget the sometimes enormous loads these innocuous little workhorses are holding in check!

Electronic Autopilots

Time was the only way to get a sailboat to steer itself was with a mechanical windvane or a tricky sheet-to-tiller rig. The first electronic autopilots were power-hungry and unreliable, but now they are efficient, reliable and utterly ubiquitous. Only confirmed Luddites sail without them, and the most sophisticated systems used on shorthanded ocean racers steer just well as, or even better than humans.

MSD Regulations

Not all changes in sailing have been for the good. Regulation of the disposal of human waste on boats was most certainly inevitable, but it need not have been so haphazard and irrational. The current regime favors storing waste aboard (an inherently disgusting concept) to deliver to often overloaded municipal treatment systems. It would be better for sailors, and the environment, if waste were properly treated aboard and then discharged. Here’s hoping the government wises up someday.

Smart Charging

As the energy demands on the typical cruising boat grew, so did the demands placed on energy storage and generation systems. The advent in the late 1980s of high-output alternators and smart regulators that cut hours off charging times have made a real difference to cruising sailors. Shorter charging times mean less engine wear, less fuel consumption and less annoying engine noise.

Low-friction Deck Gear

As important as modern winches have been to sailhandling, let us not forget the lowly block. Until the late 1960s, blocks relied on greasy steel bearings (or no bearings at all) to keep turning, which could be problematic in the corrosive marine environment. Then along came Peter and Olaf Harken of Pewaukee, Wisconsin, with blocks that had plastic bearings instead. Today hardware manufacturers employ a bewildering array of materials and technology to create not just blocks, but travellers, cam cleats and a wealth of other gear that makes sailhandling easier than ever.



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