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For the series of games, see Age of Sail (video game).
The Battle of Terheide (1657) by Willem van de Velde the Elder, depicting a 1653 naval battle between the Dutch Republic and the Commonwealth of England
A Ship of War, Cyclopaedia 1728, Vol 2

The Age of Sail was the period in which international trade and naval warfare were dominated by sailing ships, lasting from the 16th to the mid-19th century. This is a significant period during which square-rigged sailing ships carried European settlers to many parts of the world in one of the most expansive human migrations in recorded history.

Like most periodic eras the definition is inexact but close enough to serve as a general description. The age of sail runs roughly from the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, the last significant engagement in which oar-propelled galleys played a major role, to the Battle of Hampton Roads in 1862, in which the steam-powered ironclad CSS Virginia destroyed the sailing ships USS Cumberland and USS Congress, culminating with the advance of steam power, rendering sail power in warfare obsolete.

Sailing ships continued to be an economical way to transport cargo on long voyages into the 1920s. Sailing ships do not require fuel or complex engines to be powered; thus they tended to be more independent from requiring a dedicated support base on the mainland. Crucially though, steam-powered ships held a speed advantage and were rarely hindered by adverse winds, freeing steam-powered vessels from the necessity of following trade winds. As a result, cargo and supplies could reach a foreign port in half the time it took a sailing ship. It is this factor that drove sailing ships aside. Sailing vessels were pushed into narrower and narrower economic niches (see disruptive technology) and gradually disappeared from commercial trade. Today, sailing vessels are only economically viable for small scale coastal fishing, along with recreational uses such as yachting and passenger sail excursion ships.

Golden Age of Sail[edit]

In Europe, the Golden Age of Sail is generally agreed to be the period in the 19th century when the efficiency and use of commercial sailing vessels was at its peak (clippers, tall ships, etc.) and immediately before steamboats started to take trade away from sail.[citation needed] Some would say that the Golden Age of Sail relates specifically to the clipper ship era, while others put the Golden Age of Sail between 1850 and the early 1900s when sailing vessels reached their peak of size and complexity.[1] "The Golden Age" is also a term used to describe the Golden Age of Piracy, the time period from 1690 to 1725 when well-known pirates such as Edward Teach (Blackbeard) and Bartholomew Roberts were preying on mercantile ships, and sometimes even blockading ports, on both sides of the Atlantic.[2]

In the United States, the Golden Age of Sail has been said to be between the War of 1812 and the Civil War,[3] or approximately 1830 and 1880,[4] a time during which sailing vessels increasingly adopted steam engines, making overseas shipping more reliable.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, "Sailing Ship Rigs"
  2. ^ David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates, (Harvest Books, 1995), pp.xvi-xvii
  3. ^ nautarch.tamu.edu
  4. ^ museum.gov.ns.ca
  5. ^ ncdcr.gov

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42 news items

Boston Globe

Boston Globe
Wed, 27 Aug 2014 21:18:45 -0700

SALEM — The sails ripple and flow across the vast floor like silent surf. Yards and yards of white polyester taffeta, often webbed with miles of high-tech fibers, is cut and sewn into sails for small boats and for almost unbelievably large ones. A ...

Southwales Evening Post

Southwales Evening Post
Mon, 18 Aug 2014 05:19:53 -0700

THE age of sail has returned to Swansea Bay in a big way with a modern twist. Look out to sea and you will not spy the tall ships which helped secure the city's maritime heritage through transporting tin and coal around the world, but the miniature ...
Cumberland News Now
Tue, 05 Aug 2014 12:43:59 -0700

The Age of Sail Marathon takes its name from the Age of Sail Heritage Centre in Port Greville. The museum is the start and finish line for all four events. It details the history of shipbuilding and lumbering in the area. Proceeds from the marathon ...

Western Morning News

Western Morning News
Wed, 27 Aug 2014 12:01:39 -0700

The Falmouth to Royal Greenwich Tall Ships Regatta runs from Thursday until Sunday and promises to cast visitors back to the golden age of sail. The port has welcomed almost 50 ships for the nautical epic, including 12 magnificent, square-rigged tall ...

Boston Globe

Boston Globe
Sat, 23 Aug 2014 22:03:45 -0700

In the 17th and 18th centuries, at the height of the Age of Sail, famous sea captains like the British Royal Navy's Horatio Nelson and the explorer James Cook gathered recognition and treasure. The anonymous sailors who crewed their ships, meanwhile ...
Guelph Mercury
Sat, 30 Aug 2014 11:00:00 -0700

Some readers will have been fans of the Royal Navy novels set in the age of sail and written by Patrick O'Brian (1914-2000). Gradually they (and he) achieved considerable popularity both in the United Kingdom and the United States. With O'Brian having ...
Gloucester Daily Times
Thu, 28 Aug 2014 18:18:20 -0700

In an era when tweets and apps dominate the world's attention, the Gloucester Schooner Festival celebrates the age of sail, which at one time was the height of the technology. What began as a rendezvous of American and Canadian schooners in Gloucester ...

National Geographic

National Geographic
Fri, 29 Aug 2014 09:07:24 -0700

In his new book, Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates, and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail, Marcus Rediker, distinguished professor of Atlantic history at the University of Pittsburgh, turns that assumption upside down, showing that many of the ...

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