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Tall Sailing Ships of Yesteryear

Many elegant sailing ships of yesteryear are referred to now as "tall ships," but that's not how they were known in their day. The current nickname came about because of the international Tall Ships' Races, which had their first event in 1956. Because of the worldwide appeal of the races, the generic term for most any type or era of tall sailing ships became known worldwide as "tall ships." But there are actually a variety of ship types that fall under the tall ships moniker.

I've detailed below many of the types of tall ships, which have these basic components in common:

  • a hull
  • sails
  • at least one mast to support the sails so the power of wind can be used to propel the ship
  • rigging (lifting or hauling tackle that can include ropes, chains and other devices to support and work the masts, yards, sails, etc.)

Where Are All the Old Tall Sailing Ships Now?

Many beautiful examples of historic tall sailing ships have been consigned to nautical history and lie at the bottom of oceans around the world, because of the hazards encountered on long sea voyages that often took months at a time.

It was common for ships to be blown off course or capsized because of severe storms or winds. And even if the ships made it to their destinations, the journeys weren't easy. Only finite quantities of fresh food and water could be carried in the ships' holds, so delay of planned stops to get new supplies had the potential to be disastrous. Pirates and disease also made ocean voyages perilous; perhaps not for the ships, but certainly for the crew and passengers. And older ships didn't have anything like the sophisticated boating safety equipment we have today, so they often experienced as fatal what we would consider merely inconvenient.

Fortunately, some beautifully preserved tall sailing ships still exist in maritime museums and other environments. And many more live on in literature, movies and history books. Scroll down to see examples of these.

The USCG Eagle barque

The USCG Eagle barque

Types of Tall Sailing Ships


Francis Bacon was known to have used the term "barque" as early as 1605, but this type of tall sailing ship existed long before that under the same name but with different spellings.

By the late18th century, barque (or "bark," which was the way it was spelled in America) referred to any vessel with three or more masts, fore- and aft-sails on the back mast and square sails on all the other masts.

Existing barques:

  • The Falls of Clyde is a commercial barque that was built in 1878 and is well preserved as a museum ship in Honolulu.
  • The Pommern is the only ship of its kind in original condition and is housed outside the Åland maritime museum.
  • The United States Coast Guard has a circa 1936 operational barque called the USCGC Eagle, which was built in Germany and captured as a war prize.
  • The Star of India is the oldest active sailing vessel in the world. It was originally built in 1863 as a square-rigged ship, and was then converted into a barque in 1901.
The True Briton Blackwall frigate from Sailing Ships Paintings and Drawings CD-ROM and Book by Carol Belanger Grafton, Dover Publications

The True Briton Blackwall frigate from Sailing Ships Paintings and Drawings CD-ROM and Book by Carol Belanger Grafton, Dover Publications

Blackwall Frigates

"Blackwall frigate" was the common name given to three-masted, full-rigged tall sailing ships built in the 1800s.The first part of the name comes from the fact that these frigates were built at shipyards on the River Thames in Blackwall, England. Over 120 Blackwall frigates were built before production stopped in 1875, but few are left. In fact, in spite of being both comfortable and relatively safe for passengers, Blackwell frigates figure prominently in maritime shipwreck history.

Famous Blackwall frigates lost at sea:

  • The Cospatrick was decimated by a fire that swept through the ship while it was just south of the Cape of Good Hope in Africa in November 1874. Loss of life: 473 people
  • The Dalhousie sank off Beachy Head on the south coast of England near East Sussex in October 1853. Loss of life: 60 people
  • The Dunbar wrecked near Sydney Heads, the entrance to Sydney Harbour in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia in August 1857. Loss of life: 121 people
  • The Madagascar went missing between Melbourne, Australia and London in 1853. Loss of life: 150 people
  • The Northfleet was run down and sunk by the Murillo (a Spanish steamer) in the English Channel in January 1873. Loss of life: approximately 300 people

More Information About Blackwall Frigates

The Niagara brig at Put-in-Bay in 1913