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A Brief History of Sailing

Why Go Sailing
Traditional Navigation

People have been using the power of the wind to sail for thousands of years.

Sailing uses the wind acting on sails, wingsails or kites to push a craft forwards.

Throughout history sailing has helped people to find new land and trade with other groups of people.

  • The earliest record of a sailing ship has been found on an Egyptian vase from about 3500 BC.
  • Vikings sailed to North America around 1000 years ago.
  • Advances in sailing from the 15th century onward helped European explorers in Canada to make longer voyages into further away places.
  • Further improvements in sails and equipment led to people migrating to America, Australia and New Zealand in the 18th and 19th century.
  • World trade developed.

There are two main periods of voyaging:

Ancient voyaging: from 50,000 to 25,000 BC people from Asia sailed simple rafts from island to island, reaching Near Oceania (Australia, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands). They traded in stone, hunted animals and gathered seafood and local plants.

Recent voyaging: from 1200 BC people sailed canoes further east, into Remote Oceania (Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia). The islands were much further apart and harder to find. Trading trips allowed people who had migrated to keep in contact with their homelands.

The Lapita people

Experts believe that the Lapita people are the ancestors of people from Polynesia, Micronesia, and some coastal areas of Melanesia. The Lapita were the first to reach Remote Oceania. Between 1200 and 1000 BC they spread to West Polynesia (including Tonga and Samoa) on single-hulled outrigger canoes.

Polynesian explorers

About 3,000 years ago Polynesian culture developed in West Polynesia. Skilled navigators in double-hulled waka slowly found remote islands to the east, using their knowledge of the stars and the winds to return home safely. Groups would then set off to start new settlements.

To New Zealand and the Chatham Islands

New Zealand was the last land to be settled. Around 1300 AD Polynesian settlers found their way here. These people were the ancestors of Māori. The first migrants came from a region in East Polynesia which Māori later called Hawaiki. At about the same time, they reached the smaller northern islands of Norfolk and the Kermadecs.

Later still, early Māori exploring eastward from New Zealand found the Chatham Islands, a few centuries before the first European ships reached the Pacific.


Sailing today is mostly done for recreation or sport. Sailing can be very challenging due to the changeable and often harsh conditions at sea. Guidance and practice can help you to overcome these challenges and enjoy the freedom and rewards of an activity that people have done for thousands of years.

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Audio Māori keywords: 

Can you find out more about the history of sailing in Aotearoa?

Thousands of years ago, the ancestors of Māori migrated across the Pacific Ocean. Image: David Eccles.

The Lapita spread to West Polynesia on single-hulled outrigger canoes. Image: Wikipedia.

Skilled Polynesian sailors discovered remote islands and started new settlements. Image: Wikipedia.

Approximately 1300 AD Polynesian settlers navigated their way to Aotearoa. These migrants were the ancestors of Māori. Image: Wikipedia.

Why Go Sailing
Traditional Navigation