About Tall Ships

Learn the Ropes > About Tall Ships

Statsraad Lehmkuhl

What is a tall ship?

The term “tall ship” is a generic term used to describe large sailing ships, most often representing historical vessels or replicas. The term may have had limited use throughout history; an experienced sailor likely would have referred to a ship by the design of its rig. The term “tall ship” probably took on more widespread use following the publication ofJohn Masefield’s poem “Sea Fever”in 1902.

Tall ships come in many shapes and sizes. The size of the vessel and its type are often determined by its mission and where it will sail. The first distinction between tall ships is the difference between a square-rigged vessel and a fore-and-aft rigged vessel.

Square riggers have vertical masts that are crossed by yards, large wooden or steel beams that run perpendicular to the length of the ship’s hull. Sails spread below each of these yards. Large square-rigged vessels may have yards on one or more of its masts, and spread many acres of sails. They may also have some sails that run fore and aft, along the length of the ship. Fore-and-aft rigged tall ships have sails that only run along the length of the ship, from the bow toward the stern. Some of these sails may be attached to a gaff or a boom, a wooden or steel beam similar to a yard, but running on a fore and aft axis with the ship’s hull.

Square-rigged ships have an advantage when using the trade winds, which blow in circular patterns across the earth’s surface and can power a sailing ship across vast expanses of ocean. Fore-and-aft rigged ships can generally sail at an angle closer to the wind and were often used for coastal trade. These are not hard and fast rules, and many hybrids, like the Baltimore clipper (a square topsail schooner), were built to take advantage of both types of sails.

(Information above courtesy ofOpSail 2012 Virginia.)

Tall Ship Rig Descriptions
(Click on thumbnails for larger images.)

Full-Rigged Tall Ship Full-rigged ships have three or more masts, all square rigged.
Amerigo Vespucci is a full-rigged ship.
Barquentine Barquentines (or barkentines) have three or more masts, with the foremast square-rigged and the others fore-and-aft rigged.
Gazela Primeiro is a barquentine.
Brig Brigs have only two masts, both of which are square-rigged.
Niagara is a brig.
Brigantine Brigantines have only two masts. The foremast is square-rigged, but the aft mast is fore-and-aft rigged.
Soren Larsen is a brigantine.
Schooner Schooners have two or more masts and may have both fore-and-aft and square-rigged sails. Schooners rigged with three or more masts have spars and rigging of uniform dimensions and scantlings for all masts, except the main boom of the aft mast, which is heavier and longer.
Square topsail schooners have both fore-and-aft and square-rigged sails. A topsail schooner can be distinguished by square sails on the foremast, but differs from the brigantine and barquentine by having a gaff sail aloft the foremast.
Pride of Baltimore II is a square topsail schooner.
Gaff-rigged schooners have fore-and-aft rigged sails attached to spars that are hoisted up the masts.
Virginia is a gaff-rigged schooner.
Staysail schooners have fore-and-aft rigged sails only, but not the large spars found on other schooners.
Ketch Ketches have two masts, each carrying a gaff-headed or jib-sail. They differ from two-masted schooners in that the larger mast and sail stand foremost, whereas in the schooner the reverse is true. The mizzenmast is stepped forward of the sternpost.
Sloops have only one mast.

This is only a partial list of rigs. Visit Learn More…for links to sites with additional information about tall ships.

Class Descriptions

Class A: All square-rigged vessels (full-rigged, barque, barquentine, brig or brigantine) and all other vessels over 40m (131 feet) in length overall (LOA).

Class B: Traditional-rigged vessels (i.e., gaff-rigged sloops, ketches, yawls and schooners) with an LOA of less than 40m (131 feet) and with a waterline length (LWL) of at least 9.14m (30 feet).

Class C: Modern-rigged vessels (i.e., Bermudan-rigged sloops, ketches, yawls and schooners) with an LOA of less than 40m (131 feet) and with a LWL of at least 9.14m (30 feet) not carrying spinnaker-like sails.

Class D: Modern-rigged vessels (i.e., Bermudan-rigged sloops, ketches, yawls and schooners) with an LOA of less than 40m (131 feet) and with a LWL of at least 9.14m (30 feet) carrying spinnaker-like sails.

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