Development of Sailing Ships
( Updated April 2014 )


Note: I got interested in the history of sail while transcribing the letters of a Swiss relative who died in Shanghai in 1902 while working for a European silk importer and I wondered how long it took his letters to reach home. One question led to another and I went on a wild tour of the Internet. On these pages, I summarize what I found.

Chinese ships

Before discussing European vessels, we take a quick look at Chinese sailing ships [see also Wikipedia].

The typical vessel is the junk, an efficient design that is fast, easy to handle and able to sail upwind. Its most distinguishing feature are sails divided into a number of horizontal panels by bamboo slats (battens). These give the sail better aerodynamics and allow reducing the sail area for different wind conditions. Chinese ships also developped many other features before the west, for example: the stern mounted rudder, multiple masts, water-tight hull sections and the magnetic compass. China is not known as a seafaring nation and, for many centuries, it promoted a policy of isolation to the extent that China relied on the Portuguese then Dutch for trade with Japan. But during the 15th century (1405-1433), massive fleets under Admiral Cheng Ho (or Zheng He) went on voyages to India, Arabia and Africa.

From Univ. California

The first trip (1405-1407) involved 63 ships and 39,000 men. Below, you can see a typical junk, a comparison of Cheng Ho's 400 ft flagship to Columbus' Santa Maria, and a modern sloop fitted with a updated junk rig.

Modern Junk Rig
Note: Click on images to ZOOM; arrows to change; ESC to return !

On inland waterways and canals, boat were (and are still) often propelled by a single scull (Yuloh) over the stern. Feudal navies of Japan used galleys with multiple Yulohs, propelled by sculling rather than the rowing on european galleys. Such a galley is shown in the TV version of the Clavell book Shogun.

Japanese Seki Bune (ca. 1600)
[ Ref: Fighting Ships of the far East: Japan and Korea AD 612-1639 ]

Around 1900, the fashion for Europeans in Shanghai was to go for weekend outings in houseboats on the canals that criss-crosed the surrounding countryside.

Prehistoric boats

Anything that floats can be lashed together to serve as a primitive boat and, starting with log rafts, early man went on to develop dug-out canoes, reed boats and kayaks. I cover those prehistoric boats in another section.

In what follows, I concentrate on the evolution of larger craft destined for trade, war and long distance travel.

Before the Age of Sail

In Europe, for a long time, boats were small, had one mast and seldom left sight of land. Ships like the Mediterranean galleys and the nordic drakkar relied mainly on oars for propulsion aided by square sails when there was a following wind. They would be steered with a "side oar" that would hang off the back of the boat.

Venetian Galley

Viking Drakkar

Renaissance Ships

In the 1300s, larger loads for war and commerce were handled by Cogs . In the north, the rudder had replaced the side oar for steering. In the Mediterranean, lateen sails working as windfoils allowed sailing upwind. Building techniques improved to allow the construction of larger crafts with multiple masts.

COG typical dimensions:
Tonnage: 140 t
Crew: 28 men

Hull length: 20 m
Width: 7 m
Draught: 3 m

Cog on Paris Crest

Northern Cog

Mediterranean Cog

Size measurements

Reported ship sizes in tons are confusing because there are 3 variants

The age of discovery (1400-1550)

Two types of ships were developped:


The design of caravels underwent changes over the years, but a typical caravel of the late 15th century may be described as a broad-beamed vessel of 50 or 60 tons burden; some were as large as 160 tons. About 75 feet (23 m) long, the typical caravel had two or three pole masts, lateen-rigged (i.e., with triangular sails). Later versions, the redonda, replaced the main lateen sail which required a large crew by a square sail which also made for more speed when running offshore. Caravels were usually built with a double tower at the stern (the aftercastle, or sterncastle) and a single tower (or none) in the bow (the forecastle). Top speed for a caravel was about 8 knots; the average was 4 knots for 90-100 miles in a day.

Caravela latina

Caravela redonda


Large Caravel

In 1492 Colombus's used 2 caravels, the Nina and the Pinta, and a larger carrack, the Santa Maria, as his flagship [More].


The carrack (called nao, for ship, by the Portuguese) was the beast of burden of the 16th century, carrying cargo and troops to faraway lands. It rode high in the water with the prominent forecastle (along with the usual sterncastle) giving it a characteristic "U" shape. The high sides made it virtually impregnable to attack from small craft, which was often a problem in the East Indies. The forecastle located directly above the stem, with the bowsprit rising from its top made sailing to windward difficult and would disappear in gallions which come next. The square rigging with a lateen mizzen is typical of the age but we see a second row of top sails needed to drive this heavy ship.

Large carracks had ample room for large crews, provisions and cargo required for east Indies trading. Their size and stability allowed mounting of cannons.

Typical Carrack

Vespucci's ship
468 tons, 86 men

Magellan's Victoria Replica


Carracks were also used by Vasco de Gama for the first successful trip to India around the Cape of Good Hope. In 1498, de Gama left Portugal with 170 men, 3 carracks and one caravel; he returned 22 months later with only 2 ships and 55 men. He had sailed 24,000 miles and spent 300 days at sea [ BBC History ]. For the next 100 years, the Portuguese controled the East India trade, sending a fleet to India almost every year, scheduled to coincide with the monsoons. For more details see our historical page.

Carracks for exploration like the Santa Maria or de Gama's San Gabriel were small, about 90 tons; but merchant ships would average 250-500 tons with a crew of 40-80 and some war ships went up to 1000 tons. The average speed was about 80 miles/day and the trip to India took 6 to 8 months each way.

Wreck of a merchant Nao

Exploration of a sunken Nao, the Nossa Senhora dos Mártires has provided much information about these ships.
"In 1606, after 9 month at sea returning from India, the Nossa sank in view of Lisbon. She was a Nao with a 40 m hull and 9 m beam. The cargo, the main reason for the voyage, consisted of 250 tons of peppercorns, complemented with many other spices and drugs, countless bales of cotton and silk cloth of all sizes and colors, furniture, porcelain, exotic animals and thousand of luxury items from the workshops of the far east. The ship also carried 450 people, including crew and passengers, food and water for six months, spares and fittings." [see Pepper Wreck]

Inside of a ship

Columbus ship
Single hold

A 600 ton India Nao (4 decks below)
Click images to enlarge

Texas A&M References:


The Galleon differed from older designs primarily by being longer, lower and narrower, with a square tuck stern instead of a round tuck, and by having a snout or head projecting forward from the bows below the level of the forecastle [Note: the head housed the crew's toilets]. The forecastle was also made smaller and moved back. These changes, pioneered by the English under Elizabeth, made their galleons faster and more manoeuvrable and enabled them to sail considerably closer to the wind.
Note: modern sailboats with fore and aft rigs can sail about 40° to the wind but at best a square rig could only do 70°.

Galleons also started using portholes to allow guns to be mounted lower in the hull and not just on deck. This made it possible to have more powerful guns which would not capsize the ship when fired. The Galleon was a sound multi-purpose design. War ships would have cannons on all decks whereas a merchant might have one gun deck and use the others for cargo.

Whereas, carracks were usually very large ships (often over 1000 tons), galleons were mostly under 500 tons. The Manila galleons, were to reach up to 2000 tons, were the exception. From 1565 to 1815, these were Spanish trading ships that sailed once or twice per year across the Pacific Ocean between the Philippines and Acapulco in New Spain. Goods would then be taken overland to VeraCruz and hence to Spain.

The galleon continued to be used until the early 18th century, when better designed and purpose-built vessels such as the fluyt, brig and the ship of the line rendered it obsolete for trade and warfare respectively. In time, the long beak became curved and shorter, top sails were added, jibs were introduced and the lateen-rigged mizzenmast was replaced with a gaff rigged spanker sail.

Spanish Galleon

Adler von Lübeck (1565)
Hanseatic League warship
2500 tons, 138 cannons

Drake's Golden Hind (1580)

Parts of a Galleon

a) Bowsprit Sail b) Waterline c) Bowsprit d) Anchor e) Rudder f) Mizzen Mast g) Mizzen Sail
h) Main Mast i) Crowsnest j) Top Sail k) Main Sail l) Foresail m) Foremast n) Bowsprit Mast
Borrowed from Glendale School

East Indiamen

These were built by the various East India companies (Dutch, English or scandinavian) to bring back tea, china, silk and spices. Over the years, the high castles disappeared in favour of a lower beamier shape. In capacity they ranged from 600-1500 tons but the speed remained around 4-5 knots for an average of 120 miles/day.

Batavia (1628)

Gotheborg (1740)

Amsterdam (1750)

Arniston (1794)

The route to Java & China

The book China and Denmark (2001) gives a detailed description of a typical journey to China in 1742 by the Danish Indiaman, Dronningen af Danmark. The Dronningen was a 540 ton vessel with a crew of 150 including 10 traders and clerks. On the outward trip, the cargo, in terms of value, was 90% silver, 5% cloth and 5% lead ingots. The return cargo was tea and porcelain.

In order to catch favorable monsoon winds, ships had to leave Copenhagen in December-January and it might take up to 3 months to get out of the North Sea into the Atlantic. Thereafter, the ships took the usual sailing to the Cape. Then China vessels would go straight west pushed by the Trade winds before turning north to aim for Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra and on to Canton. The return journey would again pass by the Sunda Strait before aiming directly for the Cape. The passage from Copenhagen to Canton normally took 7-8 months at sea followed by 4-5 months in Canton obtaining cargo, repairing and refitting the ship. The return trip was faster: 6 months for a total round trip of 18-20 months.

In the 40 years from 1732 to 1772, 65 ships made the journey and only 6 were wrecked (4 on the North Sea leg). However, wear and tear was such that the useful life of a ship was 4-5 voyages (8-10 years).

The same route had been used by Europeans for over 100 years. In 1628, the skipper of the 650 ton Batavia [picture above] planned to hijack the ship on her maiden voyage. He steered off course, away from the rest of the fleet but went too far and struck a reef off the west coast of Australia.

Further Evolution of Ships

War ships evolved from galleons into 100 gun Ships of the Line like Nelson's Victory (below) and the Napoleonic wars brought further refinement of square rig sailing configurations. These massive flagships were complemented by smaller faster craft with fewer guns like frigates which would serve as models for the clippers to come.

Ship of the Line Victory (1759)
104 cannons
Nelson's Flagship at Trafalgar (1805)

French Frigate (1794)

US Frigate Cumberland (1843)
Served in Mediterranean & Caribbean
sunk by Confederate ironclad steamer (1862)

Into the 19th c.: Clippers

In Europe, the Napoleonic wars brought further refinement of square rig sailing configurations. In North America, The Americans designed the clipper as a response to the British naval blockade in the war of 1812. The clipper was developed for speed, often capable of reaching 20 knots, in contrast to the 5-6 knots attained by other cargo ships of the day. It would serve for commerce of Tea (and opium).

Opium Clippers (1831)

Merchant Frigate (1861)
Star of India
Iron Hull, 62x11 m, 1200 tons
100 days to NZ
  • square-rig & multiple masts
  • built for speed:
    • London-Shanghai in 100 days
    • NY-San Francisco in 120 days
    • San Francisco - HongKong in 45 days
  • valuable cargo: tea,
    spices, passengers, mail
  • 800 tons
  • 60 m

Forteviot (1896)
Tea clipper

Next: Transportation (1800-1900)