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The great age of sail


Ships in the age of sail

The great age of sail stretched from the time European ships first undertook worldwide voyages in the middle of the 15th century until the coming of steam in the first quarter of the 19th century.  Little changed in overall design during this long period, although vessels steadily grew bigger.  All were built of wood, powered by the action of wind on sails made of canvas, which were supported by rigging made from rope woven from hemp.  Only when steam ships appeared and began to make inroads into the trade of sailing ships did design of hulls and rigging evolve significantly.

The rig: an incomplete description

Ships of this period are often described by their rig, i.e. ship, barque, brig, schooner.  The rig is easily identifiable, even when the sails are stowed.  But it must be remembered that rig does not necessarily define what a ship does, nor even its size.   

A second problem is that descriptions changed over the years.  Models and paintings from the 18th century have survived of vessels described as ‘barks’ which are ship rigged. One explanation is that, in the Royal Navy, only those of the rank of captain could command a ‘ship’, and the command of a more lowly lieutenant was classed as a ‘bark’ whatever its rig.  To be pedantic, the term ‘ship’ should only be applied to a vessel which is ship-rigged i.e., with square sails on three masts.  However, since the coming of steam almost every seagoing vessel has been described as a ship. 

Until the 18th century, most ships were ship rigged.  Only in the 19th century did rigs begin to vary significantly, and the descriptions of rigs given here become more or less standardised.