Tall Sailing Ships of Yesteryear
Many elegant sailing ships of yesteryear are referred to now as "tall ships," but that's not how they were known in their day. The current nickname came about because of the international Tall Ships' Races, which had their first event in 1956. Because of the worldwide appeal of the races, the generic term for most any type or era of tall sailing ships became known worldwide as "tall ships." But there are actually a variety of ship types that fall under the tall ships moniker.
I've detailed below many of the types of tall ships, which have these basic components in common:
- a hull
- at least one mast to support the sails so the power of wind can be used to propel the ship
- rigging (lifting or hauling tackle that can include ropes, chains and other devices to support and work the masts, yards, sails, etc.)
Tall Sailing Ship PhotosClick thumbnail to view full-size
Where Are All the Old Tall Sailing Ships Now?
Many beautiful examples of historic tall sailing ships have been consigned to nautical history and lie at the bottom of oceans around the world, because of the hazards encountered on long sea voyages that often took months at a time.
It was common for ships to be blown off course or capsized because of severe storms or winds. And even if the ships made it to their destinations, the journeys weren't easy. Only finite quantities of fresh food and water could be carried in the ships' holds, so delay of planned stops to get new supplies had the potential to be disastrous. Pirates and disease also made ocean voyages perilous; perhaps not for the ships, but certainly for the crew and passengers. And older ships didn't have anything like the sophisticated boating safety equipment we have today, so they often experienced as fatal what we would consider merely inconvenient.
Fortunately, some beautifully preserved tall sailing ships still exist in maritime museums and other environments. And many more live on in literature, movies and history books. Scroll down to see examples of these.
Types of Tall Sailing Ships
Francis Bacon was known to have used the term "barque" as early as 1605, but this type of tall sailing ship existed long before that under the same name but with different spellings.
By the late18th century, barque (or "bark," which was the way it was spelled in America) referred to any vessel with three or more masts, fore- and aft-sails on the back mast and square sails on all the other masts.
- The Falls of Clyde is a commercial barque that was built in 1878 and is well preserved as a museum ship in Honolulu.
- The Pommern is the only ship of its kind in original condition and is housed outside the Åland maritime museum.
- The United States Coast Guard has a circa 1936 operational barque called the USCGC Eagle, which was built in Germany and captured as a war prize.
- The Star of India is the oldest active sailing vessel in the world. It was originally built in 1863 as a square-rigged ship, and was then converted into a barque in 1901.
"Blackwall frigate" was the common name given to three-masted, full-rigged tall sailing ships built in the 1800s.The first part of the name comes from the fact that these frigates were built at shipyards on the River Thames in Blackwall, England. Over 120 Blackwall frigates were built before production stopped in 1875, but few are left. In fact, in spite of being both comfortable and relatively safe for passengers, Blackwell frigates figure prominently in maritime shipwreck history.
Famous Blackwall frigates lost at sea:
- The Cospatrick was decimated by a fire that swept through the ship while it was just south of the Cape of Good Hope in Africa in November 1874. Loss of life: 473 people
- The Dalhousie sank off Beachy Head on the south coast of England near East Sussex in October 1853. Loss of life: 60 people
- The Dunbar wrecked near Sydney Heads, the entrance to Sydney Harbour in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia in August 1857. Loss of life: 121 people
- The Madagascar went missing between Melbourne, Australia and London in 1853. Loss of life: 150 people
- The Northfleet was run down and sunk by the Murillo (a Spanish steamer) in the English Channel in January 1873. Loss of life: approximately 300 people
More Information About Blackwall Frigates
Brigs have two square-rigged masts (the fore and the main, which is at the aft of the ship) and range in length from 75 to 165 feet. They were usually made of wood and therefore only lasted about 20 years, but later models were comprised of mainly iron or steel.
Brigs shouldn't be confused with brigantines, even though they were developed as variations of them. Shipbuilders found that by re-rigging brigantines with two square sails each instead of one, the resulting vessels had greater sailing power. These variations became brigs, which were used as cargo carriers and small warships with 10 to 18 guns.
- The USS Oneida was used during the War of 1812. Midshipman James Fenimore Cooper was aboard while under construction.
- The Farmer was owned by George Washington.
- The USS Niagara was helmed by commander Oliver Hazard Perry in the Battle of Lake Erie, which was a key US victory during the War of 1812.
- The Rebecca was helmed by Captain Robert Jenkins whose boarding of the ship set off the War of Jenkins' Ear.
Brigs in literature:
- The Pilgrim, a cargo brig, had its 1834 voyage from Boston, Massachusetts to California featured in Two Years Before the Mast.
- The Lightning appears in Joseph Conrad's The Rescue.
- The Sea Hawk is featured in The Pirate of the Mediterranean by William Henry Giles Kingston.
- Captain Hook's pirate ship, The Jolly Roger, was prominently featured in James M. Barrie's Peter Pan.
- The Interceptor is used in the film Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl.
- The Enterprise (the brig, not the spaceship) is in the film Star Trek Generations.
(The Interceptor and the Enterprise were portrayed for the movies by the brig Lady Washington.)
More Information on Brigs
A brigantine is defined by its two masts, only one of which -- the forward -- is square rigged. It differs from its close cousin the brig by having square rigging only on the foremast, as opposed to a brig which has square rigging on both masts.
Originally favored by pirates, brigantines were small and had both oars and sails. By the 1600s, the Royal Navy coined the term brigantine to refer to small two-masted vessels that could be rowed or sailed, and were rigged with square sails on both masts. By the 18th century, however, the term brigantine had evolved to refer not to a ship type, but rather to its rigging: square rigged on the foremast and fore-and-aft rigged on the mainmast.
Brigantines, while beautiful, weren't known for their speed. They could only travel about 5 knots, which is the equivalent of 9 km per hour or 6 miles per hour.
More Information on Brigantines
Christopher Columbus was reputed to be enamored of this small sailing ship, which is backed up by the historical supposition that the Niña and Pinta were caravels. Columbus is said to have repeatedly praised his favorite ship, the Niña, for her "great speed, maneuverability, and safety."
It's hard to define the archetypal caravel because it has changed over the centuries. Early caravels had two masts and a reputation for being fast and maneuverable, but low in capacity. In the 15th century, its rigging was somewhat modified. But regardless of the changes, the caravel's small size and gently sloping bow has always made it useful in shallow coastal waters. Its sail configuration also gave it the ability to take deep wind, which allowed it to achieve great speed.
More Information on Caravels
It's thought that the term "clipper" comes from the fact that unlike other old ships, the narrow bows of clipper ships allowed them to move quickly and cut their way through the water. This swiftness was tied to the word clipper because one of the definitions of "clip" is "to fly or move quickly." A clipper could move at 9 knots (17 km per hour or 10 mph), which was almost twice as fast as other merchant ships, which could only reach speeds of 5 knots.
Because of their small size, clippers were traditionally used to carry passengers or products such as tea or silk that produced large profits but took up relatively little space. They also were used to deliver the mail and were favored by pirates who took advantage of their quickness and small size. But in spite of their usefulness, the individual ships didn't last long. A clipper ship's life expectancy was less than two decades before it was broken up for salvage.
More Information on Clippers
Schooners are characterized by their fore- and aft-sails on anywhere from two to six masts. (The only seven-masted schooner, the Thomas W. Lawson, is pictured at right on what is believed to be its maiden voyage in 1902. It sunk in 1907 and made history by causing the first serious maritime oil spill.)
First implemented by the Dutch in the 16th or 17th century, schooners were further refined in the early 18th century by North Americans. If you believe sea lore, the term "schooner" came from a spectator who watched one cut across the water and said, "Oh how she scoons." ("Scoon" is a Scottish word that means to skip or skim over water.)
Schooners were used to carry cargo on long ocean voyages, short coastal runs and even inland lakes. In fact, during the peak of their popularity in the late 19th century, more than 2,000 schooners moved cargo across the Great Lakes.
More Information on Schooners
A sloop-of-war was a small sailing ship, which true to its name was used for warfare. It had one gun deck that could carry up to 18 cannons.
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, any ship over 20 guns came under a military rating system. But since sloops-of-war had fewer than 20, they were unclassified. Because of this a variety of ship types could be considered sloops-of-war, including brigs and cutters. Years later during World War II sloops were used for convoy defense and had anti-submarine and anti-aircraft capabilities.
2008 Tall Ships' Race Video
Sailing Ships Books and Art from Amazon
Interested in Seeing Tall Sailing Ships in Person?
The Tall Ships' Race happens every year in a different part of the world.To learn more about it, visit this Wikipedia page about the races.
Past and Future Tall Ships' Race Routes
2001: Antwerp, Belgium to Ålesund, Norway to Bergen, Norway toEsbjerg, Denmark
2002: Alicante, Spain to Málaga, Spain to La Coruña, Spain to Santander, Spain to Antwerp, Belgium
2003: Gdynia, Poland to Turku, Finland to Riga, Latvia to Travemünde, Germany
2004: Antwerp, Belgium to Aalborg, Denmark to Stavanger, Norway to Cuxhaven, Germany
2005: Waterford, Ireland to Cherbourg-Octeville, France to Newcastle-Gateshead, England to Fredrikstad, Norway to Torbay, UK to Santander, Spain
2006: Saint Malo, France to Lisbon, Portugal to Cádiz, Spain to La Coruña, Spain to Antwerp, Belgium
2007: Barcelona, Spain to Genoa, Italy to Toulon, France to Alicante, Spain
2007: Aarhus, Denmark to Kotka, Finland to Stockholm, Sweden to Szczecin, Poland
2008: Liverpool, UK to Måløy, Norway to Bergen, Norway to Den Helder, Netherlands
2009: Gdynia, Poland to St. Petersburg, Russia to Turku, Finland to Klaipeda, Lithuania
2010: Volos, Greece to Varna, Bulgaria to Istanbul, Turkey to Lavrion, Greece
2009: Vigo, Spain to Tenerife, Canary Islands to Bermuda to Charleston, USA to Boston, USA to Halifax, Canada to Belfast, UK
2010: Antwerp, Belgium to Aalborg, Denmark to Kristiansand, Norway to Hartlepool, UK
2011: Waterford, Ireland to Greenock, Scotland to Lerwick, Shetland to Stavanger, Norway to Halmstad, Sweden
2012: Race one is from Saint Malo, France to Lisbon, Portugal; race two is from Lisbon to Cadiz, Spain; race three is from A Coruña, Spain to Dublin, Ireland
2013: Race one is from Århus, Denmark to Helsinki, Finland; race two is from Riga, Latvia to Szczecin, Poland