Lateen Sail Definition and History [The Triangular-Shaped Sail]

The lateen sail had a remarkable impact on the world of sailing. It affected the navigability of ships and made them more sea-worthy. The lateen sail proved to be a better alternative to the older square sails. What exactly is the lateen sail?

The lateen sail is triangular in shape set on a long, sloping yard and is mounted to the mast at its middle. It runs in a fore-and-aft direction. The lateen sail can take the wind from either side of the sail. Later on, the sail was developed so that ships were able to sail into the wind.

Read on to find out more about the lateen sail, its history and much more.

The Lateen Sail

lateen sail

The simplest lateen sail definition is that it is a triangular-shaped sail. It has one side (which has two corners) secured to a long, sloping yard, and the third corner is secured near the deck. It is mounted to the mast at its middle. It runs in a fore-and-aft direction. It can take the wind from either side. It was later on developed so that it would be possible to sail into the wind.

The lateen sail gets its name from the word “Latin” because it originated and was first used in the Mediterranean. It dated back to the navigation of the Romans and was most used during the Age of Discovery.

Today, the modern lateen sail is actually a crab claw sail, an innovation from the traditional Mediterranean lateen. To modernize it, they added a spar on the foot of the sail, and they secured the horizontal bottom spar to the mast.

They connected both spars and can rotate in all directions. Moreover, they secured the bottom spar to the sheet while connecting the upper spar to the halyard.

History of the Lateen Sail

Evolution From the Square Sail Rig

The lateen sail was an evolution from the square sail rig. Sailors first used it in the Mediterranean during the Roman Empire. The lateen sail is the first fore-and-aft sail and goes along the line of the keel. According to Lucien Basch, a Belgian historian focusing on maritime, the lateen rig appeared in a painting from the Hellenistic period, around 1st century BC in Alexandria.

Experts excavated and reconstructed a ship that dates back to ca. 400 AD. And the experts concluded that the lateen sail existed even earlier than what studies suggest.

Replaced the Square Sail By the 6th Century

The lateen sail had mostly replaced the square sail by the 6th century in the Mediterranean. The lateen sail was also used by the Byzantine dromon war gallery, which was the most important warship of the Byzantine period. The lateen sail has also used as the flagship of Belisarius in 532 AD.

More excavations showed evidence that many navies used the lateen sail from the 6th to the 10th century. The lateen sail slightly changed in the 13th century, after sailors developed the hook-shaped masthead.

Arabs Used Lateen Sails for Muslim-led Fleets

The Arabs used the lateen sail thru the Copts, mostly the crewmen for Muslim-led fleets for centuries. It was the Arabs who developed the lateen sail. Later on, sailors used it in the Mediterranean. Only after the 14th century did the Atlantic and Baltic vessels switch to using the lateen sail. Northern Europe adapted to using the lateen sail in the Late Middle Ages.

With more maneuverability, merchants could now sail out of the Mediterranean into the Atlantic. These ships usually had three or more lateen sails.

Lateen Sails Vs. Square Sails

Square sails run across a boat catch the wind quite well. These sails are quite hard to set, enabling the boat to get drive while heading out into the wind. Lateen sails are fore-and-aft that lie along the boat’s length and can be controlled. This allows the boat to sail windward. The boat is more maneuverable and can tack and beat into the wind.

However, there were instances when boats would still use the square sail even after introducing the lateen sail. While the lateen sail provided more maneuverability and flexibility, the square sail gives stability when the winds are constant.

How the Lateen Sail Affected the Age of Exploration

triangular shaped sail

1. Made the Discovery of Lands Possible

People heavily relied on ships for the transportation of goods during the Age of Exploration. The ships used rectangular (sometimes called square) sails and were very well when they went with the wind. The lateen sail was an advancement because it made the discovery of new lands possible.

2. Beneficial Due to Its Design

The lateen sail was beneficial because of its design. The triangular-shaped sail made it possible for ships to sail much closer to the wind. This made it possible to explore and travel greater distances for the Mediterranean civilizations.

There have been different studies arguing the origins of the lateen sail. Some say it originated in the Mediterranean, while some people suggest that it came from the Arabs. Regardless of the lateen sail’s origin, what’s certain is that it made a significant change for naval exploration for many, many centuries.

3. Gave More Maneuverability to Ships

Aside from sailing closer to the wind, the lateen sail also gave more maneuverability to ships. The lateen sail used a halyard system with pulleys or blocks and had lines running through them from the stern to the mast’s very top and then back down to the sail.

This kind of halyard system enabled the sailors to reef the sail (reducing the sail area to make it smaller) to lessen the power when the winds are strong. This gave the ship more flexibility which was not possible with square sails. Later on, European ships used lateen sails that made travel easier and faster across the Atlantic.

4. Better Exploration

Caravel ships that traveled the Atlantic performed really well, using the lateen sail on long excursions because the ship could travel with more speed. These ships made it a better choice for exploration purposes. In fact, Columbus used a ship that used both the lateen and square sail when he crossed the Atlantic.

Late on, more nations, like Portugal and Spain, used sea travel as a framework for increasing national status. These two countries used the lateen sail on their ships. These ships would set out to look for new lands and then return with various trade goods from other countries.

The Netherlands and England soon adapted to using the lateen sail for their ships. Basically, the lateen sail made maneuverability and navigability better for explorers.

Further Impact of the Lateen Sail

lateen sails

The lateen sails hugely impacted sailing, but they also impacted other sectors like the following:

  • Travel,
  • Commerce,
  • And military for many countries, including Portugal, England, and Spain.

1. Improved Seaworthiness of Ships

As earlier mentioned, the lateen sailed improved the seaworthiness of ships by making them more navigable in deep waters. Square sails were the most ancient and most basic sail. However, it only allowed the ship to sail before the wind. And because the square sails were attached to the yard, only one side is exposed to the wind.

Due to the lateen sail’s design, it is possible for wind coming from the side to push the ship forward. This changed maneuverability significantly. This made ships with lateen sails not completely dependent on the direction of the wind. The captain could now mark his course from various ports to a different port.

2. Ships with Lateen Sail Can Take Heavier Cargo

Ships that used the lateen sail could take heavier cargo because the ship’s maneuverability was better and did not rely on the crew’s rowing ability anymore. This improved commerce tremendously and increased a nation’s gains and profit.

In fact, Venice gained commercial success because of lateen sail ships. Sailors transported goods from Venice all over the Mediterranean and brought back products from different parts of Europe using lateen-rigged ships. This made Venice one of Europe’s great commercial empires.

3. Naval Warfare

The lateen sail also heavily impacted naval warfare. As mentioned earlier, ships could now bring more cargo. Thus, naval ships could carry more supplies that enabled them to stay longer at sea.

Eventually, they built larger and sturdier ships, and they placed cannons on the ships, making the navy more powerful and formidable. The Spanish, English, Dutch, and French formed fleets using the lateen sail throughout the 19th century.

Towards the end of the 15th century, maritime exploration sailors started using lateen sails, and like those mentioned for commerce and naval warfare, which changed world exploration. Captains could stay at sea longer because they could carry more supplies, and navigations became more accurate and predictable. In fact, the ships used by both Columbus and Magellan used lateen sails.

4. Impact on Political Power

The lateen sail also impacted political power when European armies started using ships with the sail during the Crusades.

Modern Lateen Sails


Today, people still use lateen rigs but in much smaller sailboats, usually for recreational sailing. The Sunfish is a personal-size sailboat that uses a modern lateen sail. They mount the sail to the mast. It is fundamental and only requires two lines, a halyard and a sheet.

These modern lateen sails are very simple to operate. Usually, another line is used to pull down the lower spar and give tension to the other spars so that the sail has more control.

The upper and lower spars provide a frame for the sail. These lateen sails are most often cut flat and do not need complex cutting nor stitching. The company, Alcort, Inc, developed these sailboats. Moreover, you can refer to the modern lateen sail as the Oceanic lateen or a crab claw sail.

It is a fore and aft triangular sail that has spars on its upper and lower ridges. This kind of sail makes sailing easy to learn and to set up.

Crab Claw Sail

Crab claw sail refers to having a spar along the sail’s foot, thus crab claw. The bottom spar is horizontal and is fastened to its mast. There’s a connection between both front ends of the spars. Experts designed these joints so that they can rotate in all directions.

The sail sheet is affixed to the bottom spar, and the halyard is attached to the upper spar. The sail’s design is that the bottom and lower spars are kept to a plane that is parallel to the mast. The sail then forms a triangle that is cone-like, sort of similar to a kite.

Conclusion – Lateen Sails

The lateen sail is triangular in shape. Lateen sail has one side secured to a long, sloping yard, while the third corner is secured near the deck. And it is mounted to the mast at its middle. Moreover, it runs in a fore-and-aft direction.

Furthermore, it can take the wind from either side. Later on, experts developed it so that it would be possible to sail into the wind. The lateen came after the ancient square sails and heavily impacted trade, commerce, world expeditions, and navies.