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Types of Boats, Ships and Watercraft in History

Updated on January 3, 2015
Will Apse profile image

The author has worked in conservation and woodland management over many years.

Boats have made countries rich through trade. They have fed people through fishing. They have decided the destiny of nations through warfare.

Almost, as importantly, they have given (and continue to give) pleasure to millions of people who simply enjoy spending time on the water, whether in luxury cruise liners or tiny kayaks.

This is a portrait of some of the huge variety of types of boats through history. It is a series of snapshots of the most influential vessels with some background information and plenty of links if you want to delve a little deeper into some of the most interesting technology human beings have ever developed.

Coracle made with bent wood frame covered in a Yak skin (in Tibet)
Coracle made with bent wood frame covered in a Yak skin (in Tibet) | Source

Coracles and Dug Out Canoes

Early boats were made with stone tools and fire.

Dug out canoes require only a suitable tree trunk. The inside is hollowed out by carefully placing fires and scraping out the burnt wood.

Coracles and bull boats (see picture above) have a framework of wood that is bent or steamed into shape. Animal hides are then stretched over the frame and waterproofed with grease.

The Algonkin and Iroquois in North America made very capable birch-bark canoes, with wooden frames and sewn, birch-bark outer skins.

North American birch-bark canoe sketched by an early European settler.
North American birch-bark canoe sketched by an early European settler.

First Transcontinental Crossing of the US

Lewis and Clark, famous explorers of the early 19th Century, completed their crossing of the US from coast to coast primarily in dug-out canoes.

They followed the Missouri river to the Rockies, crossed the Rockies on foot and canoed down the Clearwater River to the Columbia River and, ultimately, the Pacific Ocean.

Native Americans making a dugout with fire. Lewis and Clark used similar canoes during their famous expedition.
Native Americans making a dugout with fire. Lewis and Clark used similar canoes during their famous expedition.

Sail Ships

Greek galleys
Greek galleys

Greek and Roman Sailing Ships

Two thousand years ago, Greek and Roman military ships used sails and oars operated by galley slaves. Roman merchant vessels relied mainly on sail.

Trade made Rome the wealthiest and most powerful Empire in the western world.

Viking Longboats

Vikings from Scandinavia used boats called knorrs for transporting goods and exploration. The first European ships to visit American were almost certainly Viking vessels.

Vikings used faster longboats for war and to raid the coasts of their neighbors. They even launched large scale invasions of France and England.

There was a single sail with oars and human muscle as the major propulsive force in coastal water and rivers.

There is a great resource for children on the fascinating Vikings here:

Longboat Replica


Christopher Columbus's flagship, the Santa Maria, was a carrack. A carrack has high sides, especially at the rear and 3 or 4 sails. The tough construction allows for ocean voyages and these vessels were used extensively by Portuguese and Spanish explorers.

Magellan made the first complete circumnavigation of the globe in the 'Victoria', a later design of carrack,

A carrack: Magellan's Victoria (replica)
A carrack: Magellan's Victoria (replica)


A barque is a common sailing vessel with three or more sails.

The Agnes M. Lovitt (below) is a typical barque from the early 19th Century.

It sits lower in the water than a Carrack and uses lateen sail arrangements (sails nearly parallel with the ship) throughout. A carrack had mainly square rigged sails (set at right angles to the boat)

A barque showing lateen sails
A barque showing lateen sails


Clippers were the fastest large sailing ships and were developed just before the age of steam-powered ships arrived.

A clipper: the Cutty Sark in Sydney Bay Australia
A clipper: the Cutty Sark in Sydney Bay Australia

Originally designed in Baltimore USA, clippers incorporated many new technologies that made them fast as well as safe in heavy seas.

The Sovereign of the Seas built in Boston set a world speed record of 22 knots in 1852. It was a hundred years before that record was broken.

Another famous clipper was the British built, Cutty Sark.

It carried tea from China and wool from Australia to England in record times.

The competition to arrive first with valuable cargoes drove ship design to new heights of excellence.

A sloop
A sloop

Small Sailboats

Pictured right is the most common kind of sailboat you will see in competition or being sailed for pleasure in coastal waters. It has a single mast and lateen sails.

Catamarans use similar sail arrangements but have two hulls which makes them more stable at speed.

Other common sailboats include cutters, ketches, dhonis, schooners and dinghies.

Small sailboat design had advanced enough by the late 1960s to allow Robin Knox-Johnson to sail around the world singled-handed, in around 9 months.


Junks have been made in China for around 2000 years and are still important commercial vessels today.

Grand 14th Century Junk
Grand 14th Century Junk

Large junks, like the one illustrated above, were capable of long sea voyages and allowed for extensive trade across East and South East Asia.

US Paddle Steamship, Savannah made the first powered crossing of the Atlantic (with assistance from its sails) in 1819
US Paddle Steamship, Savannah made the first powered crossing of the Atlantic (with assistance from its sails) in 1819


Steam engines, developed in Britain in the 18th Century were the first reliable source of power that didn't rely on muscles, wind or gravity. Used originally to pump water out of coal mines they were quickly adapted to drive trains and ships.


Paddle wheels have been used in some ship designs for over a thousand years, (including an ox-driven Roman version!).

Early steam ships used paddle wheels for propulsion and these kinds of vessels can still be found on lakes and rivers around the world, usually as tourist attractions.

The first US ocean-going steamship. the PS Savannah was capable of crossing the Atlantic in 22 days.

Paddleboat Natchez, on the Mississippi River
Paddleboat Natchez, on the Mississippi River

Propeller Driven Steamships

Propellers are simpler and far more efficient than paddle wheels, reducing fuel consumption and increasing speed. They are also less easily damaged either in battle or during storms

James Watt, the Scottish steam engine pioneer also designed one of the first screw propellers but it was many years of trial and error and engineering design before genuinely modern screw propellers appeared

By the late 19th Century most sea going steamships were propeller driven.

The RMS Titanic (below) is probably the most famous of all steamships. Despite its impressive size (53,000 tons) and advanced safety features it sank in less than 3 hours after hitting an iceberg on its maiden voyage.

This page has some interesting info on the wreck of the Titanic:


Modern Transport Ships

Most modern ships use diesel engines. The two most characteristic ocean going transport ships of the last thirty years have been super tankers that carry oil or liquid gas, and giant container ships.

Bigger vessels are cheaper to operate than smaller ones for the load carried.

If goods are transported in containers they are quick and easy to load and unload using cranes in modern ports.

Super tanker carrying oil
Super tanker carrying oil
2 heavily laden container ships near New Orleans
2 heavily laden container ships near New Orleans
How a trawler works
How a trawler works

Kinds of Fishing Boat

Coracles and canoes were some of the earliest boats used for fishing.

The most characteristic modern fishing boats are Seiners, Trawlers and Longliners.

Trawlers draw an open net behind them. Seine nets are left stationary for fish to swim into. Longlines use dozens, or even hundreds, of baited hook on arrays of long lines to catch fish.

Factory fishing vessels have on-board food processing plants,

There are plenty of other types of fishing vessel that you can find here:

A smaller kind of seiner in Alaskan waters
A smaller kind of seiner in Alaskan waters

Military Vessels

Before the advent of gunpowder the main ways of sinking other ships involved ramming them or using fire.

Greek and Roman navies used Triremes, oared vessels with long rams that could hole an enemy vessel beneath the waterline.

An ancient depiction of the use of Greek fire
An ancient depiction of the use of Greek fire

Another weapon was Greek fire (see picture above). This was a mixture of petroleum-based, highly combustible liquids that could be sprayed onto enemy ships, setting them ablaze. The Byzantine Empire used this very effectively.

When cannon were developed, navies could attack ports and coastal cities as well as shipping.

Galleons with two or three rows of cannon were the pride of naval powers from the 16th to the 18th Centuries.

Steel-hulled battleships with huge guns dominated naval warfare in the first half of the 20th Century.

Modern naval vessels rely more on missiles, attack helicopters and aircraft.

Spanish Galleon, 20th Century Battleship, Modern US Missile Cruiser, Russian Aircraft Carrier
Spanish Galleon, 20th Century Battleship, Modern US Missile Cruiser, Russian Aircraft Carrier

River and Canal Boats

Before the development of extensive modern road networks, rivers were the most reliable way of transporting bulky goods inland.

In the UK, purpose dug canals made a key contribution to theIndustrial Revolution allowing iron, coal and manufactured goods to be transported whilst roads were not much better than mud tracks.

Modern Rhine river barge in Basle
Modern Rhine river barge in Basle | Source

Novel Watercraft Designs


The first working hovercraft were developed in Britain in the late 1950s.

They ride on a cushion of air above the water surface and are fast, maneuverable and can operate in very shallow water. Since they can also operate on land, they are valuable for amphibious landings.

Large hovercraft deliver fast journey times across the English Channel for passengers and vehicles. Small hovercraft are used for search and rescue in estuaries, rivers and coastal areas.

Large US military hovercraft
Large US military hovercraft


Hydrofoil boats use wing like structures in the water to lift the hull into the air. This means less drag and greater speed.

The downside is that they are only suitable in areas where the seas never get too rough. They are also more likely to be damaged by floating debris.

Very fast, very sophisticated hydrofoils were developed in the US but proved to be expensive and hard to operate.

Cheaper, simpler vessels produced in Russia, Italy and China have been successful as commercial passenger carriers.

Large, Italian, Passenger Catamaran Hydrofoil
Large, Italian, Passenger Catamaran Hydrofoil | Source

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