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Age of Sail

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The Battle of Scheveningen, 10 August 1653, painted by Jan Abrahamsz Beerstraaten
A ship of war, Cyclopaedia 1728, Vol 2

The Age of Sail is a period in European history that lasted at the latest from the mid-16th (or mid-15th)[1] to the mid-19th centuries, in which the dominance of sailing ships in global trade and warfare culminated, particularly marked by the introduction of naval artillery, and ultimately reached its highest extent at the advent of the analogue Age of Steam. Enabled by the advances of the related Age of Navigation, it is identified as a distinctive element of the early modern period[2] and the Age of Discovery. [1]


Like most periodic eras, defining the age is inexact and serves only as a general description. The term is used differently for warships and merchant vessels.

By the 14th century naval artillery was employed in Europe, documented at the Battle of Arnemuiden (1338). The 15th century saw the Iberian naval ventures all the way along the African Atlantic coast and across the Atlantic Ocean, starting the Age of Discovery.

For warships, the age of sail runs roughly from the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, the last significant engagement in which oar-propelled galleys played a major role, to the development of steam-powered warships.[3]

Golden Age of Sail[edit]

The period between the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, when sailing vessels reached their peak of size and complexity (e.g. clippers and windjammers), is sometimes referred to as the "Golden Age of Sail".[4]


The second sea-going steamboat was Richard Wright's first steamboat Experiment, an ex-French lugger; she steamed from Leeds to Yarmouth in July 1813.[5][6] The first iron steamship to go to sea was the 116-ton Aaron Manby, built in 1821 by Aaron Manby at the Horseley Ironworks, and became the first iron-built vessel to put to sea when she crossed the English Channel in 1822, arriving in Paris on 22 June.[7] She carried passengers and freight to Paris in 1822 at an average speed of 8 knots (9 mph, 14 km/h).

The first purpose-built steam battleship was the 90-gun Napoléon in 1850.[8] Multiple steam battleships saw action during the Crimean war, especially the Allied (British, French and Ottoman) fleet Bombardment of Sevastopol as part of the Siege of Sevastopol (1854–1855). The first ironclad battleship, Gloire, was launched by the French Navy in November 1859.[9] In the March 1862 Battle of Hampton Roads, the ironclad CSS Virginia fought USS Monitor, making this the first fight between ironclads.

The Suez Canal in the Middle East, which opened in 1869, was more practical for steamships than for sailing ships, achieving a much shorter European-Asian sea route, which coincided with more fuel-efficient steamships, starting with Agamemnon in 1865.[10][a]

By 1873, the Age of Sail for warships had ended,[citation needed] with HMS Devastation commissioned in 1871. Devastation was the first class of ocean-going battleships that did not carry sails.

HMS Devastation

Sailing ships continued to be an economical way to transport bulk cargo on long voyages into the 1920s and 1930s, though steamships soon pushed them out of those trades as well. Sailing ships do not require fuel or complex engines to be powered; thus they tended to be more independent from sophisticated dedicated support bases on land. Crucially though, steam-powered ships held a speed advantage and were rarely hindered by adverse winds, freeing steam-powered vessels from the necessity of following trade winds. As a result, cargo and supplies could reach a foreign port in a fraction of the time it took a sailing ship.

Sailing vessels were pushed into narrower and narrower economic niches and gradually disappeared from commercial trade. Today, sailing vessels are only economically viable for small-scale coastal fishing, along with recreational uses such as yachting and passenger sail excursion ships.

In recent decades, the commercial shipping industry has been reviving interest in wind assisted ships as a way to conserve fuel in the interest of sustainability.[citation needed]


A New Age of Sail has been predicted by some experts to occur by 2030, driven by a revolution in energy technology and a desire to reduce carbon emissions from maritime shipping through wind-assisted propulsion.[13] The book Trade Winds: A Voyage to a Sustainable Future for Shipping discusses the potential of a return to wind propulsion through the firsthand experiences of Christiaan De Beukelaer, who spent five months aboard a sailing cargo ship in 2020.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The distance from London to Fuzhou via the Cape of Good Hope is 13,358 nmi (24,739 km), compared to 10,120 nmi (18,740 km) via the Suez canal.[11] Sailing vessels going around the south of Africa would typically sail over 14,000 nmi (26,000 km) as their routes were adjusted to find favourable winds.[12]: 31 


  1. ^ a b Gaynor, Jennifer L. (2013). "Ages of Sail, Ocean Basins, and Southeast Asia". Journal of World History. 24 (2). Project Muse: 309–333. doi:10.1353/jwh.2013.0059. ISSN 1527-8050. S2CID 161330041.
  2. ^ "The Age of Sail". HMS Trincomalee. Archived from the original on 2016-03-16. Retrieved 12 April 2016.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  3. ^ "The 74—the Perfect Age-of-Sail Ship". U.S. Naval Institute. 2019-02-01. Retrieved 2022-10-05.
  4. ^ "Sailing Ship Rigs" Archived 2010-12-28 at the Wayback Machine. Maritime Museum of the Atlantic
  5. ^ Malster, R (1971), Wherries & Waterways, Lavenham, p. 61{{citation}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link).
  6. ^ Stephen, L. (1894). DNB. Smith, Elder, & Company. p. 399. Retrieved 2017-12-28.
  7. ^ "The First Steamboat Services in Europe". The Artist as Witness: Images of Technology. 2002. Archived from the original on 5 November 2004. Retrieved 21 July 2021.
  8. ^ Lambert, A. "The Screw Propellor Warship", in Gardiner Steam, Steel and Shellfire pp. 30–44.
  9. ^ Sondhaus, Lawrence. Naval Warfare 1815–1914 ISBN 0-415-21478-5, pp. 73–74.
  10. ^ Jarvis, Adrian (1993). "9: Alfred Holt and the Compound Engine". In Gardiner, Robert; Greenhill, Dr Basil (eds.). The Advent of Steam – The Merchant Steamship before 1900. Conway Maritime Press. pp. 158–159. ISBN 0-85177-563-2.
  11. ^ maritime data systems. "Sea Routes". m.classic.searoutes.com. Retrieved 18 August 2021.
  12. ^ MacGregor, David R. (1983). The Tea Clippers, Their History and Development 1833–1875. Conway Maritime Press Limited. ISBN 0-85177-256-0.
  13. ^ "New age of sail looks to slash massive maritime carbon emissions". Mongabay Environmental News. 2021-03-15. Retrieved 2021-06-07.
  14. ^ Christiaan De Beukelaer (2023). Trade Winds: A Voyage to a Sustainable Future for Shipping. Manchester University Press. ISBN 978-1-5261-6309-7.