Merchant Sailing Ships

The development of trans-oceanic sailing ships coincided with the beginning of the European Age of Exploration in the 1400’s. Portuguese merchant-adventurers, supported and encouraged by the Portuguese ruler, Prince Henry the Navigator, were the first to sail west and then south into the Atlantic and down around the coast of Africa seeking wealth. This was made possible by the development of two types of ocean going ships - the caravel and the carrack. The carrack was distinguished by high castles in the front and back (fore and aft) and three or four masts, with square sails on the first two masts and primarily triangular sails (lateen sails) on the aft masts. The smaller caravel typically had two or three masts carrying lateen sails and lacked the large fore and aft castles.

During the 1500’s the fore and aft castles of the carrack became smaller and smaller, a three-masted ship rig with square sails became standardized, and the galleon evolved as the standard design for trading vessels and war ships through the 1600’s. Dutch developments in ship design during the mid-1600’s led to still further reductions in the size of the fore and aft castles and optimized cargo carrying capacities. This trend continued into the 1800’s when the next big development in hull form occurred in the clipper ship.

The clipper evolved first in American and later in British shipyards. Called the “Greyhound of the Seas,” they were long, slim, graceful vessels designed for speed, with a projecting bow, streamlined hull, and an exceptionally large area of sail on three tall masts. The emphasis on speed came partly from the desire to bring the first tea of the season back from China and partly from the rush to the California goldfields. After the American Civil War, the completion of the transcontinental railroad, the introduction of steam power, and the opening of the Suez Canal, the clipper ship era came to an end in the United States. However, the advent of iron hulls and the advantages of clippers for very long voyages to the Pacific regions prolonged the global use of clippers into the late 1800’s. It was not until the end of the First World War that sailing merchantmen were almost completely replaced by steam-powered vessels.

Cutty Sark - Composite Clipper

Cutty Sark, designed and built in Great Britain, had a hull shape that was stronger, could take more sail, and be driven harder than many other clippers. Her hull was constructed from wooden planks over a metal skeleton and was 280 feet long and 35 feet wide with a main mast height of 152 feet. Completed in 1870, Cutty Sark was to be the fastest ship in the China tea trade. Though she never lived up to this goal, in July 1889, the P&O steam ship Britannia, doing between 14 and16 knots, was passed by Cutty Sark doing at least 17 knots. After the incident, Britannia’s log read, “Sailing ship overhauled and passed us!”

The Cutty Sark worked in the tea, coal, and wool trade eventually setting records for her travel time between Sydney and London. In 1895 she was sold to the Portuguese, but she returned to England in 1922 and has been open to the public as a museum ship since that time. Though a fire damaged her decks in 2007, the Cutty Sark Trust is in the midst of a restoration project to conserve the 90% original structure still remaining within the ship.

News Boy - Brigantine

The News Boy, a brigantine built in 1854 by Elisha Brown at Owls Head, Maine at a cost of $20,000.00, represents a typical small merchantman of the day. She worked the triangular trade traveling to the Mediterranean with New England manufactured goods, then to the West Indies with wine, oil, and fruits, and back to Boston with her holds filled with a cargo of sugar, molasses, and rum.

Niña - Caravel

The Niña, one of Christopher Columbus’ famous three ships, was a caravel. With it’s triangular lateen sails, caravels are excellent for coastal voyages but not for crossing an ocean. So prior to departure, the Niña was rerigged as a caravel redonda by Columbus, with square sails on the main and foremast for sailing down wind, and lateen sails hung at a steep angle on the mizzen mast for sailing to windward. The Niña represented a common type of trading vessel during the Age of Discovery.

Mayflower - Elizabethan Galleon

The Mayflower, famous for bringing the Pilgrims to Massachusetts in 1620, was a typical small British merchantman of the time with a length of about 70 feet, a breadth of about 25 feet, and a capacity of 180 tons. She had square sails on the first two masts, a lateen on the mizzen, and likely had two decks. Built around 1609, the Mayflower was used as a cargo ship carrying goods to France and Spain until she was contracted by the Pilgrims to make the voyage to America. After returning home, the Mayflower went back to merchant service until about 1623 when it was no longer useable and was either left to rot away or sold for scrap.

Spanish Galleon

This example of folk art depicting a typical Spanish Galleon, reflects the multi-deck design and lowered forecastle of the 16th to 18th century galleons. Also called a “nau,” meaning “vessel” in Spanish, these ships featured an elongated hull that combined with the smaller forecastle to lower wind resistance and better equip them for cross-ocean sailing. Galleons were not necessarily bigger than their predecessor, the carrack, but they tended to be stronger, more heavily armed, and less costly to build. With three to five masts, the galleons could be outfitted for either transportation or military purposes and in fact, were often refitted several times throughout their lifetimes.

Steam Powered Vessels

Though inventors in Europe began experimenting with steam engines for marine propulsion in the early 1700s, it was not until the 1780s that the idea was put into practical use in the United States. Its initial application in riverboats dominated river trade, particularly on the Mississippi River, for most of the 1800s and early 1900s and played a large role in the development of the frontier. Their shallow draft required as little as three feet of water making them well-suited for the river traffic that developed in both Canada and the US as pioneer settlements spread inland across the continent.

In 1819, the US merchantman, Savannah took steam technology from the rivers to the ocean becoming the first vessel to cross the Atlantic under a mix of sail and steam power. A combination of unreliable engines and limits on coal capacity required a ship to have both sail and steam until improvements in engine design allowed the British ships Great Western and Sirius to cross the Atlantic on steam power alone in 1838. This technological advance launched an era of both commercial and passenger steamships around the world.

Mississippi - Steam Stern-wheeler Riverboat

Mississippi is a typical stern-wheel river steamboat of the type Mark Twain wrote about in Life on the Mississippi. River boats evolved with a flat bottom, a super structure built up over a very low hull, and the engines and boilers on the main deck above water. First class cabins, which could be quite lavish, were available on the boiler deck for passengers and were named after the states of the union thus originating the term “stateroom.” The next deck above these cabins was called the hurricane deck and when another deck was added, it was called the Texas deck. The pilot house was placed on the Texas deck. The Mississippi was the last of the original sternwheelers to have the Texas-deck, which was characteristic of the height of the steamboat era.

Paddle wheeler river boats continue to haul passengers today, including the latest, the American Queen, a modern replica of a true stern-wheeler built in 1995 and capable of carrying 436 passengers.

Uncle Sam- Steam Side-wheeler Riverboat

In 1852, Captain James Turnbull obtained a US contract to supply Fort Yuma, Arizona on the Colorado River by boat from the Gulf of California. He purchased a small steamer, Uncle Sam, a side-wheel river steamboat powered by a locomotive steam engine of 20-25 horsepower. She was taken apart and shipped, along with his first load of supplies, to the head of the Gulf of California where she was reassembled near the mouth of the Colorado River. With a length of 65 feet and a beam of 15 feet, Uncle Sam had a capacity of 32 tons but only drew 22 inches. Turnbull successfully ran his trade business until June 22, 1854 when the Uncle Sam sank at her mooring five miles below Fort Yuma.

L’Orenoque - Steam/Sail Side-wheeler

A side-paddled steamer built in 1848 and displacing 2,568 tons, L’Orenoque was the first French frigate with mixed propulsion of both sail and steam. Although equipped with the best steam engine technology of the day, she also had the typical masting of sailing frigates. Lightly armed, she was used primarily to transport troops.

London - Merchantman

London was a typical merchantman of the late 1700’s. Built in New York in 1771, she was 93 feet long and had a capacity of 282 tons. The London was designed to give high capacity combined with good sailing, a compromise that was often difficult to accomplish.

Elissa - Barque

The Elissa was built in 1877 when sailing ships were in decline but could still earn a profit in the right trades. As a barque, she carries square sails on her fore and main masts, but only fore- and aft- sails, or sails parallel to the keel, on her mizzen mast. Her 19 sails have more than a quarter acre of total surface. Displacing 620 tons, she is 205 feet long overall and 99 feet 9 inches in height from the keel to the top of her main mast. She had a 90-year commercial history carrying a variety of cargo to ports around the world. Purchased by the Galveston Historical Foundation in 1974, she was completely restored and is now a fully functional vessel continuing to sail annually during sea trials in the Gulf of Mexico.



A ceramic vase with a long neck and two handles, amphora appeared on the Syrian coast around the 15th century BC and were used as containers. They were used by the Greeks and Romans for storing and transporting grapes, olive oil, wine, olives, grain, and other commodities. The holds of ships were designed for transporting cargoes stored in amphora. A long cylindrical extension in their base fit into holes drilled in the cross braces of a ship’s hull to hold them erect and in place during a voyage.

Those found in shipwrecks are of great benefit to maritime archaeologists since they can indicate the age of the wreck along with the geographic origin of the cargo. They continued to be used in the Mediterranean until replaced by wooden and skin containers around the 7th century AD.


The design of anchors has evolved over time, although their function has remained the same - to hold a vessel in place on the water for any purpose, such as loading or unloading. The first anchors were probably devised by early fishermen in dugout canoes who tied a vine or other primitive line to a rock for anchoring. As man learned how to form metal, anchors became more sophisticated. The rock was replaced first by a metal ring and then by arms on a long stock which eventually evolved into today’s anchor form.

The term “anchor aweigh” is nautical jargon for an anchor hanging down into the water on its rope or chain but not touching the bottom. Thus, the order “weigh anchor” means lift the anchor from the seabed so the ship can move.

Flying Cloud - Clipper

In the 1850s, the term clipper ship indicated a large vessel having a graceful sheer, or upward curve of the lines of the hull as seen from the side, a simple, high-arched stem fitted with a figurehead, a square or round stern, a very sharp bow, and an extremely large sail area. The clipper ship was remarkably fast with speeds of 16 to 18 knots being common and speeds of up to 20 knots documented.

Flying Cloud, launched in 1851, was the most famous of the extreme clippers built by the famous American ship builder, Donald McKay. She sailed from New York to San Francisco in only 89 days on her first trip around Cape Horn, a record of less than half the usual time. The Flying Cloud’s achievement was significant, not only for its speed, but also because its navigator was a woman, Eleanor, wife of Captain Josiah Perkins Cressy. Eleanor had studied the oceanic currents, weather phenomena, and astronomy research of Matthew Maury, known as the “Scientist of the Seas” for his work in oceanography and meteorology. Thus Eleanor’s understanding of winds and currents made her a most-qualified navigator. During later trips, the Flying Cloud lowered her travel time to 80 days setting a record that lasted for 136 years.

North Wind - Clipper

The North Wind of New York was constructed in 1853. Her logs included a run from Downs, England to Port Phillip Head, Australia covering 12,500 miles in only 76 days. The North Wind featured copper plating on the wooden hull below the water line as a defense again wood-destroying ship worms, which were especially destructive in the tropical waters that she sailed so frequently.