The 15 Different Types Of Sailing Ships

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Written by Paul Stockdale | January 2, 2023
types of sailing ships

Throughout centuries, there have been many different types of sailing ships seen from harbors and coastlines around the world.

This article will show you various types of sailing vessels that have made their mark in maritime history.

We will showcase their purposes and why they are still remarkable feats of marine engineering.

The different sizes, shapes and masts of the ships required different numbers of sailors to handle them.

Each type of ship was crafted with a different purpose in mind.

The 15 types of sailing ships are:

  1. The Schooner
  2. The Carrack
  3. The Brigantine
  4. The Barquentine
  5. The Xebec
  6. The Barque
  7. The Clipper
  8. The Windjammer
  9. The Fluyt
  10. The Fully Rigged Ship
  11. The Cutter
  12. The Yawl
  13. The Brig
  14. The Ketch
  15. The Hulk

All ships are unique with no two types of ships being the same.

Each comes with its own experiences, features and requirements.

1. The Schooner

The Schooner

The Schooner sailing vessel was developed in the early 17th century and they were first used by the Dutch. They came with fore and aft sails on two or more masts.

The average size of a Schooner is 46m (152 feet) in length.

The ship was created to operate in the toughest of wind and ocean conditions.

The Schooner was a multi-purpose sailing vessel used for transporting slaves to transporting cargo and it was also used for fishing and racing.

There are various different schooner types that are characterized by their rig configurations.

The types of schooners include:

  • Tern schooner: This was a 3-masted schooner most popular between 1880 and 1920 capable of carrying up to 400 tons in cargo. The tern required a crew of 6-8 people
  • 4-6 masts schooner: These schooners spread the sail area over smaller sails
  • Grand Bank Fishing schooner: Similar to the famous Bluenose, it carries the main gaff topsail and a fisherman's staysail set between the masts.
  • Square Topsail schooner: This was a combination of fore and aft sails and small square sails, most popularly used for coastal cargo transportation in the 1800s
  • Coastal schooner: This was a coastal schooner sailing ship used for carrying goods and general cargo to nearby islands along the coast (1)

The 19th Century schooner came with two or three masts, the one at the fore being shorter than the others.

The modern schooner is quite powerful and carries Bermuda rigged sails.

Today they still traverse the Pacific Ocean, being the most economical coastal liners.

Some famous schooner sailing ships include:

  • America: The Schooner named "America" was designed for racing and it became the first winner of the America's Cup international sailing trophy (2)
  • Thomas W Lawson: The schooner “Thomas W Lawson” had seven masts, with interchangeable sails and gear. It was the only schooner with 7 masts
  • Wawona: The schooner "Wawona" was one of the largest lumber carriers and fishing vessels between 1897 and 1947

2. The Carrack

The carrack sailing ship

The Carrack is a nautically-rigged wooden ship with three or four masts each having square sails or triangular sails.

It was developed in the 14th and 15th centuries with the first built in Portugal. The largest carrack ship was 150 feet (45 meters) in size.

It is the sailing ship Christopher Columbus used to sail the world.

It was heavily used between the 14th to 15th Centuries and was the largest ship in Europe (The Spanish Carrack was more than 1,000 tons in weight).

More modern versions of the Carrack were developed by the Portuguese and they could hold up to 2,000 tons (3).

The Carrack had 4 decks.

The lower 2 were used for cargo, the 3rd was for accommodation and the 4th was for cargo owned by the crew (4).

This bulky ship was the standard trading ship along the Baltic, Mediterranean, Asian and Atlantic coasts in the mid-16th century useful for carrying cargo across seas.

The Carrack had a strange shape which made it cumbersome to sail close to the wind.

After a lot of engineering experiments, parts of the ship were stripped off giving the ship a high stern and a low bow.

The ship was at its most popular up until the late 18th Century.

The modern version of the Carrack has a square-rigged mainmast and foremast; the Mizzen mast is latten-rigged.

The stern has a rounded shape and a huge bowsprit, forecastle and aft castle.

This is a large ship, built to carry heavy freight for long-distance hauls since it was very steady even in the worst weather.

The British Army also called it the “Great Ship” because of its highly-functional ship design

Some famous carrack shipping vessels include:

  • Santa Maria: This was the famous ship that Christopher Columbus used to sail and discover America in 1492
  • Victoria: The first ship to circumnavigate the globe
  • Grace Dieu: One of the largest carrack ships in the world at that time in 1418, commission by King Henry V
  • Cinco Chagas: This was presumed to be the richest ship at that time. it was sunk in battle in 1594 (5)

3. The Brigantine

The Brigantine

A Brigantine is a two-masted sailing ship with the main mast both a fore-and-aft main sail, a triangular type of sail and also a square main topsail.

It is unclear when the ship was originally built.

Loose definitions date the ship back to the 13th century when it was originally referred to as the "sail and oar-driven war vessel" (6).

Early strict academic definitions where the vessel was referred to as the "Brigantine" was first seen in books in the early to mid-16th century (7).

The Brigantine came in various sizes ranging from 30 tons to 150 tons burden (8).

The Brigantine could carry a crew of up to 125 people but the shipping vessel could still be handled by a smaller crew if needed.

The foremast had square sails and the mainmast had the fore-and-aft mainsail.

These ships were similar to the sailing vessel called the Brig as they both had top-gallant sails.

They were used by the Royal Navy to scout and monitor enemies on the high seas.

They were also popular amongst pirates as they were a faster and easy maneuverable sailing vessel.

They would sail across the trade routes of the Baltics and Northern Europe, all the way from Germany to Scandinavia.

The mid-size ships had two sails on the-mainmast with a stripped-down fully-squared rig.

4. The Barquentine

The Barquentine

The Barquentine, also referred to as a "schooner barque", "barkentine" or "schooner bark", is a sailing ship similar to a barque but with only the foremast square-rigged and the remaining masts rigged fore and aft (9).

The first Barquentine sailing vessel was built in the 17th century.

The Barquentine has three or more masts and square sails on the fore and aft masts.

The main mast had topmast and gaff sails.

These had been stripped down to facilitate operation by a slimmer crew and basic rig.

They weighed between 250 to 500 tons.

The Barquentine sailed the waters of Northern Europe which were dominated by variable wind speeds.

They were popularly used to carry lumber from Scandinavia and Germany to England and the Baltic Areas.

5. The Xebec

The xebec

The Xebec was a sailing ship used mainly for moving cargo and trading of goods.

They were also known as “Zebec”, a name derived from the Arabic word for “Small Ship”.

The Xebec was first built in the 16th century and remained in use until the mid-19th century.

The Xebec sailing vessel typically held between 90 and 400 crew.

The ship was 31.6, (103ft 9in) in length with a tonnage of between 200 - 300 tons (10).

The features of the Xebec included:

  • Long-prow bulkheads
  • Narrow elongated hulls
  • Huge lateen yards
  • One aft-set mizzen mast
  • 3 lateen-pillared masts, both raked forward and having a single triangular sail

They were derived from the galleys and therefore had oars for propulsion.

They were very agile and popular with European navies.

They soon became notorious as effective anti-piracy raiders, commercial cruisers and formed the bulk of the Mediterranean Navy fleet.

Whether they were propelled using oars or sails, these high-speed vessels were extremely agile.

Their shallow draft and lateen rig allowed for a closer pinch to the wind allowing them to flee quickly or turn around and fire a broadside volley quickly.

After a lot of engineering experiments, the Xebec gave rise to the Polacre-Xebec, which replaced the mizzen mast.

The mainmast of the new derivative also had a square rig.

These new vessels were light and could not carry a heavy load.

They were suited for sailing on light seas.

The shallow draft and low free-board made them unsuitable for open seas sailing.

6. The Barque

The barque ship

The barque, also referred to as "barc" or "bark", is a sailing ship with 3 or more masts with square sails on all masts, except the aft or mizzen mast.

The barque sailing vessel was first introduced in the 15th century (11).

It could carry approximately 500 tons and could hold a crew of 100 people.

Although they are quite similar, the barque should not be confused with the Schooner Bark which is a different vessel.

The Barque ship was commonly used by traders to carry extremely high volumes of cargo from Australia to Europe.

The cargo mainly consisted of Nitrates and Guano destine for the Western South American coast.

These types of ships were very popular in the period prior to the start of World War II.

They were later fitted with steam-dust winches so they could be operated by a small crew.

7. The Clipper

the clipper ship

A clipper was a sailing vessel introduced in the mid-19th century.

It was mainly used as a merchant ship for transporting goods and it was designed for speed.

Clipper ships ranged in size from a few hundred tons to over 4000 tons (12).

They all had a narrow build, a protruding stern, 3 to 5 masts for speed and a square rig.

They were popular with traders for ferrying goods for long distances, because they were fast and could get the goods transported at a much faster rate compared to other vessels at that time.

They were most commonly used by British and American traders to ship goods from China to their countries.

They were also used to ferry Gold and Tea back to Great Britain and the Americas.

When it came to racing, none could beat the Clipper in speed.

Some famous clipper ships include:

  • Cisne Branco: This is a steel-hulled built like the original clipper. It is used as a training vessel by the Brazilian navy to this day
  • Race Horse: This clipper ship set the record of getting from New York to San Francisco in 109 days in 1850. This was a record at that time
  • Marco Polo: This clipper vessel was the first boat of the time to make around trip between England & Australia in under 6 months in 1852

8. The Windjammer

the windjammer

The Windjammer is a commercial sailing ship built in the 19th century.

It came with three to five square-rigged masts and it had a cost-effective extended hull that allowed for larger storage space.

The Windjammer capacity was between 2,000 to 8,000 tons and the speed ranged from 14 to 21 knots (13).

It was a general class merchant ship and was mainly used to transport bulky cargo.

It ferried lumber, coal and many other goods from one continent to another.

The Windjammer ship has evolved from carrying cargo to carrying passengers on cruises in later generations.

9. The Fluyt

The Fluyt sailing ship

The Fluyt, also known as "fleut" or "fluit" is a sailing ship that originated in the 16th century in the Dutch Republic (14).

The Fluyt has three squared-rigged masts and was primarily used as a merchant ship to transport cargo.

The ship weighed between 200 and 300 tons and it was approximately 80 feet (24 meters) in length.

It was lightly fortified and had a small stern and extended box-style structure.

The Fluyt ship could be crewed with 12 to 15 people.

The Fluyt was crafted using specialized tools to reduce the costs of production and make them affordable to merchants.

10. The Fully-Rigged Ship

The Fully-Rigged Ship

A fully rigged ship, also referred to as a "full-rigged ship", is a sailing ship with three or more masts, with all of the masts being square rigged (15).

During the 18th century, a full-rigged ship was also referred to as a "frigate". During this time in the 18th century, they were mainly used for patrolling and for attacking.

A full-rigged ship weighed an average 325 tons and could carry a crew of up to 36 people (16).

These ships required a larger crew because of their fully rigged construction.

However, towards the end of the 19th century, these ships were stripped down so they could be handled by a smaller crew.

This helped in easier handling of the sails during the monsoon period when winds would change speed and direction without any warning.

The rig, hull, mast and yards were made of iron, wood or steel.

They have different functions and sailing plans when compared to other types of sailing ships.

A fully rigged ship masts from stern to bow consists of: (17)

  • Mainmast: This is the tallest mast on the ship
  • Foremast: This is the second tallest mast on the ship
  • Mizzenmast: This is the third tallest mast on the sailing vessel
  • Jiggermast: If there is a 4th mast, it will be the jiggermast and will be the smallest mast on the ship

The fully rigged ship masts are made up of either wood, steel or iron material.

11. The Cutter

The Cutter

The cutter is a smaller sailing ship built in the early 18th century with a single mast rigged fore and aft, carrying a mainsail and at a minimum 2 headsails.

A cutter sailing vessel features: (18)

  • Narrow hull
  • 1 mast
  • 2 or more headsails
  • Decked sailcraft
  • Raking transom
  • Vertical stem
  • A gaff-rigged long bowsprit

This was used for patrolling territorial waters and other enforcement activities during the 18th century.

It was also used to ferry soldiers and government officials because it was very fast and could outrun any enemy.

A cutter sailing ship varied in size from 20ft to 34 ft in length on average.

It could carry between 66 people on the larger 34 ft cutter to 21 people on the smaller 20 ft cutter (19).

Modern day cutters have a rugged appearance. They are small and aptly fit into their intended purpose – speed and agility.

The British Sailing Club still has open-oared cutters in their fleet of sailing ships.

12. The Yawl

The Yawl

A Yawl is a sailing ship that was originally built in the 19th century.

This was originally a dutch ship, nicknamed “Dandy” or “Jol” in Dutch.

They bore two fully-equipped masts and a fore-and-aft sail.

It has a smaller jigger-mast and a mizzen mast that leans towards the rudder post of the ship.

The mizzen sail in this case is purposely designed to aid in balancing and trimming the ship on rough waters.

A yawl ship's speed ranged from 10-14 knots and had an average crew size of 25 people.

A yawl ship's size ranges from 30ft to 75 ft in length with beam sizes ranging from 10ft to 12 ft.

One famous yawl sailing ship is the Islander.

This was a 34ft yawl that Harry Pidgeon sailed around the world on.

He was the second person in 1918 to sail around the world at that time.

13. The Brig

The Brig

The brig is a two-masted sailing ship with square rigging on both masts and sometimes had a spanker on the aft mast.

They were originally built in the 18th century.

The length of a brig varied from 75ft to 165ft with tonnages up to 480 (20).

A brig typically had a crew of 22 people.

The brig was used as a war vessel and a cargo ship for transporting goods.

The ship came with a berthing deck that had sleeping quarters for cabin crew and marine officials.

It also had storage areas, a sail bin, a wood-paneled stove room, guns and carronades.

The ships required a large crew to operate them due to their square-rigged nature.

They would be brought into the harbor without using tugs and could maneuver well in small areas.

They were later used to ferry large cargo on the open seas since they could easily follow the direction of the prevailing winds.

Some famous brig ships include:

  • USS Argus: This was a United States Navy brig that fought in the First Barbary War, taking part in the blockage of Tripoli and the war of 1812
  • USS Reprisal: This was the first ship of the United States Navy
  • USS Somers: This was a brig in the United States Navy that became infamous for being the only US Navy ship to undergo a mutiny

14. The Ketch

The Ketch

A ketch is a two-masted sailboat that originated in the 17th century.

The ketch looked just like the Yawl and as stated had two masts each having a fore-and-aft rig.

The difference between the two is that the ketch had a mizzen mast placed on the taller mainmast but at a position in front of the rudder post.

The mizzen in this case aided in maneuvering the vessel.

Most ketch ships range from 40ft to over 120ft in size. They were light weighing in at between 100 and 250 tons.

A ketch ship, especially the smaller ones, needed a smaller crew of only 4 people to operate (21).

A ketch ship was used for:

  • Cruising
  • Cargo Transportation
  • Fishing
  • Racing

15. The Hulk

The Hulk

A hulk is a ship that is afloat but incapable of going to sea.

A derivative of the Carrack, this ship weighed as low as 400 tons.

They were used during the 18th century and still maintained the rounded stern and bow of the Carrack.

In maritime terms, the name “Hulk” was given to ships that were outdated, stripped down or unprofitable to run.

Older ships with wooden hulls would also be stripped down to reduce the stress on their aging structure.

The bulk of the hulk fleet was comprised of abandoned ships, stripped down and therefore could not continue to ply across the Mediterranean Sea as cargo or transport ships.

They are stationary and kept for their buoyancy and were used as a prison, a place for gambling.


  1. Maritime Museum Of The Atlantic. "Sailing Ship Rigs".
  2. The New York Times. "America's Cup Held Here Since 1851", PDF.
  3. World History Encyclopedia. "Carrack Definition," Paragraph 3.
  4. Same As Reference 3
  5. Military History. "Carracks, Famous Carracks," Paragraph 9.
  6. "Aken, tjalken en kraken" by Hans Haalmeijer & Dirk Adrianus Vuik, Page 12.
  7. Google Books Ngram Viewer. "Brigantine".
  8. Gaspee Info. "Brigentines Described," Paragraph 3.
  9. Wikipedia. "Barquentine," Paragraph 1.
  10. "Ship: 5000 Years Of Maritime Adventure" by Brian Lavery, Page 137.
  11. Oxford English Dictionary (Online Edition). "Barque".
  12. University of Houston. "No. 338 Clipper Ship". Paragraph 2
  13. Marine Insights. "Windjammer Sailing Ships: From Past to Present". Paragraph 8
  14. History Today. "Dutch Shipbuilding in the Golden Age". Volume 34, No. 1
  15. "The Story Of The Sea, Volume 1" by Arthur Quiller-Couch, Page 20.
  16. Whaling Museum. "Rigs Of Vessel, Ship," Paragraph 1.
  17. "A Dictionary of Sea Terms" by Anstead, A, Page 96.
  18. Britannia. "Cutter, Sailing Craft". Paragraph 1.
  19. "The Boats Of Men Of War" by William May & Simon Stephens
  20. Texas Navy Association. "Glossary Of Nautical Terms". Page 1
  21. National Museum Of American History. "Ship Model, Ketch". Paragraph 1