It's a big question. I contend that no mode of transport has evolved so dramatically in the last forty years as sailing. This may be seem like a weird hypothesis given the advances in space, air and automotive technology but here's why I believe this. In 1969, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston completed the first non-stop solo navigation in 313 days. Francis Joyon did it two years ago in 54 days. That's nearly six times faster in 40 years.
I will spare you an in-depth comparison between their respective boats (you can read more here) but what other mode of transportation has made a leap like this? The short story is that in 1969 the best solutions to accomplish this feat were either a very heavy, slow, teak sloop or a relatively sleek, single-hulled, steel beast with a telephone pole for a mast. Joyon's 2008 IDEC was a tricked out, carbon-fiber trimaran. They are about as different as a Sopwith Camel and an F16, a Model T Ford and a Formula 1 car but the evolution was twice as fast.
There have been game-changing innovations in almost every aspect of the sailboat in the last 40 years: Design; hull and rig material; sail shape (e.g. BMO's wing); navigation technology; power to weight ratio; the way the sport is conducted; participation in sailing as a leisure activity; cost and more.
So what about the next period in sailing innovation? My bet is that it will be a little less exciting but still transformative.
The one area where there seems to have been relatively little evolution is in my least favorite part of the sailboat, the engine. Whether it's a solidly reliable but complex diesel engine or a fickle but simpler gas-powered outboard, there has been comparatively little innovation in the design of auxiliary power. OK, you can now buy an electric outboard for your dinghy but not much else has changed.
My hope is that this will change in the next 20 years driven by two factors: Weight and energy source.
Hopefully carbon fiber will become cheaper making boats lighter, requiring less powerful auxiliary engines to propel them. The second and more important innovation is in energy source. There needs to be a leap forward in battery technology. If the automotive industry keeps trying (and that's a big if) we can hope that electric engines or at least more widely available hybrid engines will be a reality.
I will personally be delighted. I can't figure out engines and I hate the damn things. You only have to look at the incredibly simple design of the Tesla to see how much better life would be if this happens. This will have the added benefit of being safer too as engine fires will be rarer.
The other area, I am sure we will see major leaps forward in is in communications and navigation technology. The adoption of GPS and electronic chart plotters has created a platform for some really interesting innovation. Active Captain is one simple example. By making navigation and communication technologies open to innovative applications we will see an explosion in ideas in this area. Just look at the number of iPhone and Droid apps for sailors that have popped up in the last six months.
As cruisers, we will be sailing with much richer information at the helm about the area we are sailing in, safety considerations, other vessels around us, weather conditions and boat performance, all in fewer smarter lower-powered more affordable devices.
Imagine as a racer having the same technology the tactician on BMO had in the last AC. Massive amounts of data about sail shape, airflow, hydrodynamic performance at your fingertips. As the price of technology comes down, it's inevitable that this will be available to serious racers within 15 years.
But what will we lose? You only have to look at the difference in classic yachts from the 50s and 60s compared to today's production cruisers to see that we have lost a lot in the aesthetic of sailing. Older boats were heavier, tougher to maintain, slower and much more expensive but they were much more beautiful. My fear is that as boats become more efficient, a lot of the touches like the bright-work and classic lines will be lost in favor of weight and efficiency. The same thing has happened in car design where the profiles of most sedans are identical. Homogeneity is the downside of efficiency.
Lastly, there will be changes in required skills. Learning to use a sextant and maybe even how to plot a course on a paper chart will seem like learning classical Greek. Why learn these skills when you have half a dozen devices on board that could do the same and more for you automatically with copious cheap battery power to keep them going? Moreover you have to apply yourself to the new skills of learning how to integrate information from all of these sources.
My hope is that maybe this change in required skills and technology may be better aligned with where the average 20 year old is today. Maybe as sailing becomes even more environmentally superior to other water sports and the technology becomes more accessible and exciting, it will attract a new generation to our sport.
It's a great thing to hope for, yet one thing I am sure of is even with all this innovation, we still won't have personal jet packs.