Albert Einstein, Sailor – National Maritime Historical Society (2023)

Long before people started writing things down, someone figured out that it was much less tiring to let the wind push a boat than it was to paddle or row it.

The earliest sailboats were no more complicated than hoisting a bed sheet on a pole and letting the wind do all the work. But what happens if you want to go in a different direction than the wind is blowing? For a long time, seafarers hoisted their sails when the wind was blowing in the right direction and pulled out their oars and paddled when it wasn’t.

Albert Einstein, Sailor – National Maritime Historical Society (1)It took centuries for mariners to figure out a way to work with the wind so they could sail any place they wanted to go no matter which way the wind was blowing. Even now, there is no way to sail straight into the wind, but sailmakers and boat builders did figure out a way to make boats that could sail at a close enough angle to the wind that you could zigzag your way in the direction you wanted to go—even if your destination was exactly where the wind was coming from.

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How all that works is a very interesting bit of science that we’ll be doing a story about in the next issue. Not understanding the scientific principles behind how a sail works has hardly kept people away from boating (just check any seaside town on a summer Saturday afternoon!).

Some sailors—even if they are great scientists—don’t care where they’re going. For them, just being in a boat gives them time to relax and think. That’s the kind of sailor Albert Einstein was.

Many people consider Einstein to have been the greatest mathematician and physicist the world has ever known. His exploits as a sailor are not as well known and for good reason—Albert Einstein was a terrible sailor!

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You might think that someone whose scientific insights changed the world wouldn’t have any trouble with something as simple as making a boat go in a particular direction. But in Albert Einstein’s case, you’d have to think again.

His friends said that when he got into a sailboat, Einstein would get dreamy and forgetful. Whenever he went sailing, his family was just plain terrified. Einstein didn’t know how to swim, but he refused to wear a lifejacket. He was always running his boat aground because he was so busy relaxing that he didn’t look to see where he was going. His family was convinced that if he didn’t drown, he’d get his head smashed by the masts and spars he always seemed to be knocking down.

Still, Einstein loved to sail and he sailed his whole life. What little he knew about sailing, he had learned in a borrowed boat as a teenager in Switzerland. When he turned fifty, his friends gave him a 23-foot sailboat, which he named Tümmler—which means porpoise in German.

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Einstein said he liked sailing because it gave him a chance to relax after all his hard work thinking up equations and theories in his study. Those theories won him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921.

So, whenever you go out in a sailboat and manage to avoid crashing  into something, not to mention sailing your boat in the direction you want to go, you are doing something that Albert Einstein could not. And when you learn (as you will in our next issue) about how sails work, you’ll have mastered a bit of science that one of the world’s greatest scientists never seemed to understand.

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What ship did Albert Einstein sail on? ›

Prof Albert Einstein with his sailing boat “Tümmler” shortly before launching.” Albert Einstein was very content with his sailing boat. In the autumn of 1929 he wrote in a letter to the ship-building engineer Adolf Harms:”…

Can you sail into the wind? ›

Tack again and again and the zig-zagging will move the boat upwind, even though the boat can't sail directly into the wind. Sailors call this “beating,” or “tacking,” to windward, and doing it efficiently takes more skill and practice than anything else in sailing. But learn to do it well and you can sail anywhere.

Was Albert Einstein a sailor? ›

Famous as one of the most important scientists of the 20th century and author of The Theory of Relativity, not everyone knows that Albert Einstein was also a keen yachtsman. Considered a genius in physics, his boat handling skills were deemed poor, but sailing still remained a central part of his life.

When did Einstein start sailing? ›

The name would be Albert Einstein. Yes, that Albert Einstein. Sailing was a passion for the lovable, spaniel-eyed genius with the wild white hair that floated in the wind. He learned to sail on the Zurichsee (Lake Zurich) in Switzerland in 1896 when he was an 18-year-old student.

Was Einstein a good Sailor? ›

His exploits as a sailor are not as well known and for good reason—Albert Einstein was a terrible sailor! You might think that someone whose scientific insights changed the world wouldn't have any trouble with something as simple as making a boat go in a particular direction.

Who discovered the first ship in the world? ›

Egyptians were among the earliest ship builders. The oldest pictures of boats that have ever been found are Egyptian, on vases and in graves. These pictures, at least 6000 years old, show long, narrow boats. They were mostly made of papyrus reeds and rowed using paddles.

What winds should you not sail in? ›

Storms or Squall Winds

With the wind speed going above 48 knots, storms are dangerous situations and the seas may have huge waves going over 8 meters. These conditions are not ideal for sailing whatsoever and you should stay at home if possible.

Can you sail in 20 mph wind? ›

For example, if you are sailing, a brisk 20- knot wind may work great if you want to drive a 50-foot sailboat across the ocean. However, that same 20 miles per hour wind may knock a smaller sailboat down, tossing its crew into the water, making for a dangerous situation, even in calm conditions.

What happens if you sail close to the wind? ›

When sailing close to the wind, if the boat begins to cross over into the No-Go Zone, the sail will begin to luff because the wind is not flowing over the luff portion of the sail as is necessary. The sail will droop and begin flapping and the boat will measurably slow down.

Did the FBI follow Einstein? ›

From the moment he entered the United States in 1933, Albert Einstein was under constant surveillance by the FBI, which was alarmed by his advocacy of peace through world government and his support for Zionism. This file chronicles the daily activities and findings of agents assigned to Einstein over the years.

Who was the youngest sailor to sail around the world? ›

Laura Dekker, a Dutch sailor, made history in 2012 when she broke Jessica Watson's record and became the youngest person to sail solo around the world. Dekker was born in 2015 and just 16 years old when she finished her journey across the ocean.

Who was the youngest person to sail the sea? ›

Dekker successfully completed the solo circumnavigation in a 12.4-metre (40 ft) two-masted ketch named Guppy, arriving in Simpson Bay, Sint Maarten, 518 days later at the age of 16.

Who was the first person to sail around the world without stopping? ›

More than 50 years have gone by since Sir Robin Knox-Johnston made history by becoming the first man to sail solo and non-stop around the globe in 1968-69. One of nine sailors to compete in the Times Golden Globe Race, Sir Robin set off from Falmouth, with no sponsorship, on 14 June 1968.

What was the name of Einstein's sailboat? ›

Before World War II dispossessed Einstein of his home and possessions, and turned him into one of the world's most celebrated refugees, he used to putter at every opportunity aboard his pride and joy, a 21-foot sloop called Tummler that had been given to him by friends on his 50th birthday, after he had been ordered by ...

Did Albert Einstein come to America on a boat? ›

Albert Einstein poses on the deck of the SS Belgenland, 1930. He was one of 2.5 million passengers who sailed between Europe and North America with the Red Star Line shipping company from 1873 to 1934.

Did Einstein know how do you swim? ›

Even though Einstein never learned to swim, he kept sailing as a hobby throughout his life.

How did Albert Einstein get to America? ›

Travelled from Antwerp to New York on the SS Belgenland on 2 December 1930 Arrived in Antwerp on the SS Belgenland on 28 March 1933 where he renounced his German citizenship and turned in his German passport. Final departure to America from Southampton on the SS Westernland in October 1933. Einstein was a Jew.


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