A look at the different types of Tall Sailing Ships

11th June 2015

Clipper Ships

During the 1800’s, tall ships were in their golden age. No two tall ships were the same, with each individual ship being designed for a specific purpose. Some ships were specifically designed to sail long distances in the quickest amount of time, whilst other ships were designed to sail along the coast.

This week, we take a look at the eight different types of tall ships and which category the Star Clipper fleet falls into. The names of the ship categories have changed over the course of time, but the categories provided in this blog are the most common.

Clipper Ship

Clipper ships were all built with three masts and each mast carried square sails. The original clipper ships scaled the globe to bring products such as gold from California and tea from China to the shores of Great Britain.

They were built with a protruding stem and the length of each ship was always at least five times the size of the width. The draught was approximately one half of the width. Between the 1840’s and 50’s – these ships were built of wood but, in the 1860’s, iron was often used for the frames.



The most common schooner ships have two or three masts, although some do feature more. Each of the masts is equally tall and each carries gaff sails. Gaff sails are more efficient in adverse winds, and were therefore used mostly in littoral waters with varying wind directions. Many 19th century pleasure boats were rigged as schooners.



Brigantine ships consisted of two masts, with square sails on the foremost mast and gaff sails on the second (mainmast). Gaff sails were easier to handle than square sails and so required a smaller crew than that of a brig. These ships were used in both coastal waters and on the high seas. This was possible because of the addition of square sails, which made them better suited than traditional schooners for sailing in following winds.



As stated previously, brigs and brigantines are very similar, with the main difference being that both of the two masts carry square sails. These ships were most commonly used for carrying cargo over large bodies of water, where following winds could be expected. A brig ship could be easily manoeuvred under sail in restricted spaces and it was well suited for sailings to small harbours where there were no tugs. Due to the addition of square sails, however, brigs required a larger crew.



Barquentine ships consisted of three or more masts, with square sails on foremost mast and gaff sails on the others. These middle-sized ships often sailed within Northern European waters with variable winds. They were often used in the lumber trade from Scandinavia to Germany and England across the Baltic and North Seas. Barquentine ships feature a simpler rig and needed a smaller crew than that of a barque, but did not sail as well in following winds. Both Star Flyer and Star Clipper are four-masted barquentines.

Full-Rigged Ship

These ships consisted of three, four, or even five masted ships and each of the masts carried square sails. The full rigging meant that these ships required a large crew, but in the late 19th century the full-rigged ships underwent a vigorous development to reduce the number of people on board.

The hulls, masts and yards were all made of iron or steel and sail handling was simplified. This meant that the sail area could be easily adjusted for various wind forces and were best suited for following winds. They were mostly used for intercontinental voyages in trade winds and monsoons.

Four-Masted Barque

The second largest tall sailing ships consisted of four masts, of which the fourth mast (the jigger mast) carried a gaff sail and the remaining masts carried square sails. They were the most common sailing ships in the trans-oceanic trade between 1900 and the start of World War II and could carry a large amount of cargo.

Innovations such as steam-powered winches made it possible to reduce the size of crews on board. Frequent cargoes were grain from Australia to Europe and nitrate and Guano from the South American west coast.

Five-Masted Full-Rigger


A five masted full rigger is a specifically defined ship as having five masts, with square sails on all of the masts. In 1902, Preussen, the only five-masted full rigger was built, was launched to serve the nitrate trade from Chile to Germany. She was the largest tall ship ever built and the large sail area (6,800 sq. metres) made her able to achieve the same speed as the fastest clipper ships.

For eight years, Preussen gracefully sailed the seas. Unfortunately, the ship was accidentally rammed in the English Channel before drifting a shore and remaining wrecked near Dover. Preussen was the only five-masted full-rigger to be built for 90 years, until the Royal Clipper was built for Star Clippers in 2000.

If you want to understand the history and elegance of tall sailing ships for yourself, you can experience it for yourself with Star Clippers. With cruises to stunning locations in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and, as of 2016, Asia; the best way to experience to oceans of the world is on board a cruise with Star Clippers.

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