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A brilliant invention is energizing sailing—it’s called a bowsprit

2023 July 1

Sailing is the oldest form of transportation in the history of mankind, not counting walking. 

Archaeologists say the first humans to settle on the Australian continent had to have traveled there on boats. That was at least 45,000 years ago, and it is safe to assume those early immigrants rigged some sort of sail to augment the labor of paddlers. 

How amazing is it then that 45 millennia later the oldest form of transportation, which still depends on wind for propulsion just as Stone Age sailboats did, is on the cutting edge of fast advancing technology? High-tech breakthroughs are making wind-driven boats faster than ever before.

One of them, of course, is the invention that lifts sailboats above the water and over the last remaining barriers to boat speed—hydrofoils. For now, foils mainly benefit exotic racing boats, though some sailors are not waiting for that technology to trickle down to more prosaic craft.

There is a retiree I know who devotes most of his time to gardening but does a bit of sailing on the side. He recently bought a 12-foot sailboat for recreation on inland lakes. It’s called a Skeeta, and it’s a foiler. 

With two deep foils, a tall, skinny mast, a wand extending into the water at the bow for foil depth adjustment, and a sliver of a hull with almost no freeboard, the boat resembles a praying mantis. The manufacturer says it will zoom to 25 knots or more in a moderate breeze. The owner, a septuagenarian, bought a helmet to go with the boat. He’ll need it.

There is another breakthrough and it’s even more impactful on sailing because, unlike foils, almost every boat owner can have it. It’s a standard feature on most new boats, whether they’re designed for racing, cruising or both. It can be retrofitted on older boats. Whatever the type of boat it’s on, it soups up sailing performance.

Beyond that, it’s just so cool. Not having one could identify a boat as quaintly old school, like one that might be seen, perish the thought, sailing with out-of-style white sails, rather than faddish black ones. 

The breakthrough is the bowsprit.

OK, technically, it’s not a breakthrough. Bowsprits, after all, were standard equipment on 16th century sailing ships. Let’s just say bowsprits have been reimagined.

The reimagined bowsprits do the same thing the originally imagined sprits did hundreds of years ago by extending sail area beyond the bow. But there’s a new wrinkle that accounts for the cachet of today’s bowsprits—asymmetrical spinnakers.

When the J/105 was introduced in 1991 with a retractable spinnaker pole protruding from the bow, most sailors considered it a novelty and few if any thought it would render traditional spinnakers obsolete.

Today almost all new sailboats over 25 feet long—the fastest offshore racing boats, including foilers, cruiser-racers and pure cruising boats—come with that skinny form of a bowsprit, and symmetrical spinnakers have been relegated to sailing history. It’s all about the reaching power of triangular spinnakers and gennakers tacked at the end of these modern-day bowsprits.

The long sprits (fixed rather than retractable) on big racing boats extend the foretriangle so far that multiple staysails can be set inside the spinnaker. I’ve seen a 100-footer sailing with three staysails and a spinnaker.

On cruising boats, the sprits tend to be short. They’re still suitable as a tacking point for a conservative spinnaker and they also provide a handy place underneath for an anchor to be snubbed up on its chain rode and carried out of sight.

I admit I was a skeptic when I test-sailed one of the first J/105s. After two hours sailing on a breezy day off Miami, I was a believer. Hundreds of other converts were to follow.

A total of 685 J/105s have been built and can be found in ports around the U.S. and Europe. The 34.5-footer designed by Rod Johnstone is revered as an able sailer that crystallizes the enjoyment of sailing in every form, from daysailing and course racing to ocean passagemaking. But it did not win its place in sailing history with its popularity or exceptional performance. It will always be known as the boat that made a brilliant, sea changing innovation out of an ancient sailing concept.

One of the ways reimagined bowsprits differ from their predecessors is that sailors to do not walk or crawl out on them, as did jack tars of yore, because that would require the skill of a tightrope walker. When a block gets fouled on a modern sprit, fixing it is a bosun’s chair operation.

I am reminded daily of the bowsprit challenges of the past by a framed centerspread from an 1885 issue of Harper’s Weekly that hangs in my office. It features a dramatic drawing by the great illustrator J. O. Davidson depicting the America’s Cup winner Puritan in a raging sea. Puritan was a 94-foot cutter that carried 8,000 square feet of sail, a large part of which was attached to a bowsprit that in the drawing looks to be at least 25 feet long. Five sailors cling to the sprit, their feet in the netting beneath the sprit, waves breaking over them as they struggle to take in a huge sail that appears quite similar to an asymmetrical spinnaker.

Something else about the drawing seems familiar. There’s a pair of staysails aft of the spinnaker in much the same arrangement as the staysails on the state-of-the-art 21st century 100-footer I mentioned.

Does this mean that, with the exception of foils (a powerboat concept adapted to sailing), there is nothing truly new in the world’s oldest form transportation?

Maybe, but there is a lot that has been reimagined.