Historical Timeline of Sailing Ships

14th July 2016

The three vessels that make up the Star Clippers fleet offer a nod to a bygone era of traditional tall ship sailing. Sailing on board the Star Clipper, Star Flyer or the magnificent Royal Clipper, you will be able to enjoy this traditional style of sailing whilst visiting hidden coves, tranquil islands, and paradise beaches. While these ships offer an insight into a historical era of trade routes and exploration, the origins of the traditional sailing vessels extends over many thousands of years. This week, we take a closer look at the origins of traditional sailing vessels and how these have evolved into the clipper ships we know today.


Travel back thousands of years to a period where there were no main roads and the efficiency of travelling by water soon becomes clear. The very first forms of ‘boat’ to be used were most likely nothing more than logs, which were either tied together to form a raft or hollowed out to make canoes. These logs were then propelled either by simple paddles or poles, which could be pushed into the river bed.

Ancient Egypt

The Ancient Egyptians are thought to have introduced one of the first types of sailing vessel back in 3400BC. These ships were made of wood from acacia or sycamore trees and featured a single mast with a square sail, which powered the ship alongside a series of oars. The only problem with using these types of wood is that only short lengths could be cut. From 2900BC, cedar wood was used, from which longer planks could be sawn.

Ancient Greek Ship

Ancient Greece

By 480BC, it was established that wind sails were the best way to power ships. However, the Greeks decided to enhance their war efforts by using oars, which gave them an edge in terms of manoeuvrability and speed. These ships were rowed by three banks of oarsmen and helped steer Greek triremes to victory over the mighty Persian fleet.

Viking Longship


The Viking longship is one of the most iconic sailing vessels in maritime history. Built using overlapping planks (clinker-built) which were riveted to frames, these vessels were resilient and flexible enough to endure long journeys from Scandinavia to the coasts of Britain, France and Spain. By 1000AD, they were enhanced with wide hulls and managed to reach Iceland, Greenland and North America.


The Europeans were inspired by the clinker-built Viking vessels and decided to apply this technique to their own ships for several centuries. In the thirteenth century, cog ships followed the clinker-built procedure but featured raised platforms at either end to provide vantage points from which archers could shoot arrows. The clinker-built approach was adapted during the construction of Carrack ships, which required larger hulls. The carvel method of shipbuilding saw planks fitted edge-to-edge onto a frame and resulted in vessels being able to carry more cargo.

Chinese Junk

Chinese Junk

Chinese Junk sailing ships date back to the 2nd century AD, although they are still used by some fishermen to this day. Between 1405 and 1433, a fleet of junks made a series of expeditions across the Indian Ocean from China under the guidance of Zheng He, a trusted servant of the Ming emperor of China. The largest of these junks ships featured nine masts and measured 150 metres in length. They were strengthened by wall-like partitions called bulkheads and the sails were stiffened by bamboo poles.

Spanish Galleon

Spanish Galleon

In the 16th century, Spain needed a new type of ship to assist in bringing back gold and other treasures from America. A new ship – which combined the factors of speed, size and strength of predecessors – was introduced around the time of the Spanish war against the English fleet. The sails on galleon vessels were huge and had to be let down or pulled up by sailors using heavy ropes.

The Age of Sail

Royal Clipper

Lasting from the 16th to the mid-19th century, the Age of Sail saw a series of explorers reach the far corners of the earth to discover new lands and establish trade routes. Ships were continually enhanced in terms of efficiency and speed and, 150 years ago, the clipper ship was born. Clipper ships reached their peak upon the introduction of barques – which were high-capacity, multi-masted sailing ships. The Royal Clipper is a five-masted barque and is the largest ship of its kind to be built for 100 years.

Today, you can embrace and enjoy this era of tall ship sailing with Star Clippers. With itineraries around the Mediterranean, Caribbean and Far East Asia – there really is no better way to explore the world.

Our Latest Brochures


Reservations Centre

UK and Eire passengers please contact Fred. Olsen Travel, the General Sales Agent for Star Clippers or any ABTA Travel Agent.

Opening Hours:
Monday to Friday - 9:00am to 6.00pm
Saturday - 9:00am to 4:00pm
Sunday - Closed