The song was released as the lead single from Enya's second studio album, Watermark, in October 1988. It became a global success, reaching number-one in several countries, like Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and United Kingdom, where it stayed at the top of the UK Singles Chart for three weeks. In the United States, the song peaked at number 24 on the Billboard Hot 100 in April 1989.
The song was played in the first season of Cougar Town.
YouTuber Seananners references the "Sail Away" lyrics on occasion, notably while playing Gang Beasts, and is partial to the Pure Moods card in Cards Against Humanity due to this song being on that album.
Australian television show Please Like Me features this song in the opening scene of the first episode of its fourth season.
In The Last Man on Earth episode "When the Going Gets Tough", Phil Miller sings the song to Erica as she prepares to give birth to her child.
In the Brooklyn Nine-Nine episode "Crime and Punishment", Jake Peralta mentioned Enya as one of his favorite musical artists. Later on, "Orinoco Flow" plays as he walks, in slow-motion, into a courtroom.