Trip Information

Lateen rig boat
Lateen rig boat (14)
Trip Date:2008-03-20 - 2008-03-30
# Photos:6 [View]
Countries visited:Italy
Viewed: 4060
The boat rigging called “Lateen” (Vela Latina) was, in ancient times, a very big improvement in sailing technique: contrary to the square sails in fact, this triangular sail, steerable according to the wind, allowed to navigate even when the latter didn’t come from stern (back) , and to a certain extent even “close-hauled” or “close reaching”, i.e. with the wind blowing at 60°-70° to the bow (I hope my explanations will be clear).
The advantage is very big because it allows to sail toward a destination even when that is not downwind. In practice that means actual sailing where one wants to go and not merely being “pushed” by the wind.

But who invented the lateen rig? And When? Those are questions not easily solved. Even the origin of the name is controversial, some people think it might come from “a la trina” that means triangular in old Italian. In Europe – it was thought - the ships of the Italian Maritime Republics (Genoa, Pisa, Venice and Amalfi) in middle age, were the first to utilize that kind of rigging, and thanks to that they were able to create a commercial empire. From Mediterranean then the lateen sail spread to the rest of Europe, and that could explain the term. But actually the Arabs, or better that confederations of different middle-east ethnic groups joined together by the same language, knew lateen sail much before and utilized (and still utilize) it for their trade with Asia. So for long time it has been maintained that just the Arabs invented it in 6th century and then spread it in all Mediterranean. Those of you who have gone to Egypt or Sudan or Yemen, for instance, surely would have seen the swift fishing or cargo boats which have the same lateen sail utilized here in the past by our fishermen.
But underwater archaeology have reserved us some surprises, in fact recently they have discovered some wrecks of Roman cargo ships that had just the triangular lateen sails, and the same sail can be seen in Roman bas-reliefs. The history of seamanship should then be re-written?

But things doesn’t stop there, should the Romans be the inventors of the lateen rig? Personally I don’t think so. The Romans were not sailors and – at first- they had no sailing capacities. But they understood very soon that if they wanted to conquer the Mediterranean they had to build a fleet. And they did it very well and in a short time. But how? They at first bought and then copied the ships from the Greeks, and furthermore because they had no trained officials the were forced to employ Greek “captains”. As far as the empire lasted, most of the Roman ships were commanded and piloted by Greek officials. Only the “low” crew was Italics!
Not only that. Even the Phoenicians, given their great experience in that field, were enrolled in the Roman navvy. It’s likely then that the Romans took the lateen sail from the Greeks or from the Phoenicians, and so the date of its invention will have to be moved back considerably.

In Stintino, a small fishing town in northern Sardinia, every year they organize a regatta for lateen rig boats. The participants come from several different Mediterranean countries, among which the north African ones.