The 15 Different Types of Sailing Ships

Sitting down at the harbor, watching seagulls and other marine birds dive to capture fish for food, Richard spotted a sailing ship that he had never seen cross that harbor before.

It was his pastime to come and while away the evenings on most days at the harbor and watch the sun go down.

The silhouettes of various ships passing by, and he could even recall their names when he saw them. These ships were the contemporary engine-driven ships.

But today he saw one that had majestic sails and it made him sit up, pondering on the types of ships that had graced the harbor over time.

What Richard did not know is that hundreds of thousands of ships have sailed the oceans and seas around the world for centuries.

He made a mental note to go to the library and find out how many types of ships have sailed the waters of the globe.

You don’t need to go to the library; this article will show you 15 different types of ships that have made their mark in maritime history, their purposes and why they are still remarkable feats of engineering.

So grab a cup of coffee and get ready to learn about these amazing vessels.


All ships are unique and no two types of ships identical. Each comes with its own experiences and requirements. 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.

Here are the top 15 types of ships of all time.

Types Of Sailing Ships

1)  The Carrack

the carrack

This is a nautically-rigged ship with three or four masts each having square sails. It was heavily used between the 4th to 15th Centuries and was the largest ship in Europe (The Spanish Carrack was more than 1,000 tons in weight). This bulky ship was the standard trading ship along the Baltic, Mediterranean and Atlantic costs in the mid-16th Century.

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 popularly used until the late 18th Century.

The modern version of the Carrack has asquare-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.

2)  The Schooner

types of boats

This type of ship has two or masts of an equal height. The masts allowed the ship to operate in the toughest of wind conditions. The 19th Century schooner came with two or three masts, the-one at the fore being shorter than the others. The schooner “Thomas W Lawson”had seven masts, with interchangeable sails and gear.

The modern schooner is quite powerful and carries Bermuda rigged sails. Today they still traverse the Pacific Ocean, being the most economical coastal liners.

3)  The Clipper

different types of sailboats

This is a derivative of the schooner and was popular for global travel in the mid to end of the 19th Century.They were popular with traders for ferrying goods for long distances, because they were fast. British and American traders favored these ships, which came indifferent lengths, but had one common feature. They all had a narrow build, a protruding stern, 3 to 5 masts for speed and a square rig.

They popularly crossed the California –China trading routes. 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 Clipperin speed.

4)  The Barquentine

types of boats

This is another derivative of the schooner and also went by the names schooner barque and schooner bark. These had been stripped down to facilitate operation by a slimmer crew and basic rig. The Barquentine has three masts and square sails on the fore and aft masts. The main mast had topmast and gaff sails. They were light and average 250 to 500 tons in weight.

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 Fully-Rigged Ship


During the 18th to 19th Century, the Fully Rigged ship, commonly referred to as “Ship” came with a full nautical rig with three or more square-shaped masts bearing square sails. 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 slim crew. This helped in easier handling of the sails, during the Monsoon period when winds would change speed and direction without any warning.

The ships also went by the term “Frigate”which referred to the fully-rigged nature, and were popular as intercontinental trading ships. The rig, hull, mast and yards were made of iron or steel. Theyhave different functions and sailing plans when compared to other types of sailing ships.

6)  The Hulk

sailing ships
source: wikipedia

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 ageing structure.

The bulk of the hulk fleet was comprised of abandoned ships, stripped down 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 prison, gambling and relic sailing ships.

7)  The Brig

The Brig was a war vessel, with a berthing deck that had sleeping quarters for cabin crew and marine officials. It also had storage areas, sail bin, wood-paneled stove room, guns and carronades. The brig came with two masts, each bearing square sails and sometimes had a spanker on the aft mast.

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.

8)  The Brigantine

These were similar to 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 would ply 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. The foremast had square sails and the mainmast had the fore-and-aft mainsail. The ships could be handled by a smaller crew.

9) The Bark (Barque)

sailing ships

These should not be confused with the Schooner Bark; they were light and weighed between 250 to 750 tons. They had the second tallest structure of all types of ships. They had four masts, each bearing square sails on the fore topmast and fore-and-aft sails on the aft mast.

These vessels were 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.

Fun fact: The oldest sailing ship in the world is a bark. 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.

10) The Xebec

ship model

These ships came with a lot of features,such as long-prow bulkheads, narrow elongated hulls, and huge lateen yards. The ships also bore one aft-set mizzen mast and three lateen-pillared masts, both raked forward and having a single triangular sail. They were also known as“Zebec”, a name derived from the Arabic word for “Small Ship”.

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. One Xebec had the capacity to carry a maximum of 36 guns on its top deck.

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.

11)   The Fluyt

type of ship

The Fluyt has three squared-rigged masts and was a Dutch merchant sailing ship in the 16th to 17th century. It was lightly fortified and had a small stern and extended box-style structure. It was also known as the Fleut or the Fluit, and was a great cargoship since it had a lot of storage space and only required a skeleton crew to operate it.

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

12)   The Cutter

sailing boats

This was the preferred naval ship during the 18th century. It had one or two masts, a gaff-rigged bowsprit,two or more head sails and a decked sail-craft. It was mainly used to ferry soldiers and government officials, because it was very fast and could outrun any enemy.

Modern day Cutters have a rugged appearance and bear fore-and-aft rigs. They are tiny 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.

13)   The Yawl

sailboat types

This was a Dutch ship, nicknamed “Dandy” or“Jol” in Dutch. They bore two fully-equipped masts and a fore-and-aft sail. It has a Tinier 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. The mainsail is large and approaches that of the sloop in size.

14)   The Ketch

type of ship

The ketch looked just like the Yawl and hadtwo 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.

They were light weighing in at between 100 and 250 tons. The rigs were designed to carry square masts. They were mainly used by the navy to bombard enemy ships.

15)   The Windjammer

During the late 19th to early 20th Centuries, the Windjammer, another giant sailing ship was crafted for ferrying bulk cargo. It came with three to five square-rigged masts and had a cost effective extended hull that allowed for a larger storage space.

It was a general class merchant ship, and the largest in its category. They ferried lumber, guano from one continent to the other.

Environmental concerns and increasing fuel costs soon rendered the ship obsolete and those which ran purely on wind energy were adopted.

We also have a list of sailing yachts that may be of interest. Some are the most beautiful in the world and the prices for them are astounding.

In conclusion

This is not a comprehensive list if sailing ships that have traversed the oceans throughout history; there are many more.However, they all share one characteristic in that they were the precursors of the huge ocean liners that Richard was so used to seeing at the harbor.

There are still some models that are still sailing around the world, although most of them have been rendered museum pieces over the years.