Who knows the true origins of boating? It is easy to imagine a person clinging to a floating log thinking he had stumbled on to a good idea. Later on somebody tied several logs together and created a raft which seemed like an even better idea. Other folks with a solid work ethic hacked out the middle of a log and invented the hull. Paddles, oars, sails, engines and mini-fridges that keep the beer ice cold came along in good time. A couple of thousand years and many patent disputes later we have a vast industry in watercraft with many different uses. A device originally conceived as a way to get across a river now spans oceans. It supports commerce, defends our shorelines and provides a favorite form of recreation. The act of “going to sea” became more than just a moving form point A to point B. It became a calling, an inspirational journey, the stuff of literature and sometimes pure hell.
“Those who would go to sea for pleasure, would go to hell for pastime.”
18th century aphorism
The idea of going to sea for pleasure took centuries to develop. Yachting is more or less an invention of the Dutch. We get the very word from their “jacht.” Wealthy Dutch ship owners would have on hand a small speedy vessel for going out to greet their incoming ships. By the seventeenth century the low countries had fleets of these private vessels plying the shallow waters of northern Europe providing waterborne recreation for the burgeoning merchant class as well as the nobility. Royal yachts of various nations were grand affairs that took every form from elaborately decorated barges to something that was more like a fashionably appointed man of war. The industrial revolution brought a democratizing influence on yachting as recreation became an activity available to citizens outside the upper classes.
The first luxury yacht built in America was Cleopatra’s Barge. The vessel was Built in 1816 by George Crowninshield Jr. She was 83 feet long with a 23 foot beam and was rigged as a hermaphrodite brig. George sailed away on her for one adventurous tour of Europe. He died in 1817 and the boats career turned to shipping for a while. The Barge was sold to King Kamehameha II of Hawaii in 1820.
The story of yachting includes everything from luxury cruising to high stakes racing, family outings to entertaining world leaders. American schooner yachts were drafted into service during WWII for anti-submarine patrols. British yachts of every size and description were among the hastily assembled fleet that rescued British soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk.
Today’s pleasure craft enjoy the benefits of modern technology including GPS, Radar, computerized systems and a wide variety of composite materials. What remains from this long trail of history? We have never lost the urge to experience the eternal nature of the sea. The deck of a boat is still one of the great places to gaze at the stars. Every journey has the potential for inspiration and crossing the water is still a good idea.