An Introduction to Ship Types During the Age of Sail

HMS Shannon, artisit unknown

There were many different types of ships during the Age of Sail, and all were defined based on their size, the number of masts they had, the shape of their hull and their rigging (the size and shape of sails arranged on however many masts). Not all types of rigging are mutually exclusive. For example, the descriptor “fore-and-aft rigged” is very general, denoting only that all the sails run parallel to the centerline of the vessel. It is possible for a ship to be “fore-and-aft rigged” with many different shapes of sails (triangular, trapezoid, etc.), which would further narrow down the type of ship.

The two most important words to help you understand the following definitions are bow and stern. For the purposes of the geography of any ship, the bow is the front and the stern is the back. They are roughly equal to the terms fore and aft, with fore meaning “towards the bow” and aft meaning “towards the stern”. (This is probably an oversimplification but it will get you through which is the important thing!)

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A small single-masted sailing vessel, used in the 15th and 16th centuries.

baltimore clipper

A two-masted fore-and-aft schooner-like ship also carrying square sails on the foremast and often used in the role of a blockade-runner or privateer.
The masts were set at extreme angles, as it was believed at the time to provide for better speed. Baltimore clippers were also used to transport prospectors and settlers from the East Coast to the West Coast during the California gold-rush.


A two- or three-masted Mediterranean vessel carrying lugsails.

barque longue

A relatively small 17th century two-masted square-rigged sailing vessel best known for its use by early Fench explorers.


A 17th century long and narrow ship’s boat, rowed by 10 to 20 oars, often used to transport senior officers.


A vessel square-rigged on all but the aftermost mast, which is fore-and-aft rigged. Also spelled Barque. Most were three-masted, some were four- or five-masted vessels. Before the mid 18th century the term Barque was also often used for any three-masted vessel not fitting any other accepted nomenclature or category.


A sailing ship with from three to five masts of which only the foremast is square-rigged, the others all being fore-and-aft rigged. Also spelled Barquentine.


A small two-masted merchant sailing ship, similar to a brigantine, used mainly on Dutch coastal routes and canals. Rarely larger than 100 tons burthen. She carried a fore-and-aft lateen main-sail bent to a yard hanging at about 45 degrees to the mast


An ancient Greek or Roman war galley propelled by two tiers of oars on each side.


A small open vessel for travel on water by rowing or sailing.

In the age of sail, boats were essential equipment on any ship. Used as a , for shore landing parties, towing, warping, rescue missions, patrols, escape from mutiny, to mention only a few purposes. Boats came in a variety of shapes and sizes depending on time-period and function: barges, cutters, dinghies, gigs, launches, longboats, pinnaces, shallops, skiffs and yawls.


A small single-masted Dutch vessel with an extreme rounded stern and bow, normally carrying . It had a very shallow draft but a relatively tall mast, limiting its use to inland canals, rivers and lakes.

bomb vessel

Developed by the French to battle the Barbary corsairs, these vessels used high trajectory mortars instead of conventional guns. The hull was strengthened to take the weight of one or more mortars and the foremast was completely omitted. Late 18th century bomb vessels would have had a full three-masted rig, and were often used for polar expeditions since their hulls were so sturdily built and would hold up better in the ice.


A two-masted vessel, square-rigged on both masts. The rear mast carries a fore-and-aft boom-sail as well.
In the 17th century the term Brig was also used as short for Brigantine, which then could be any variety of two-masted square-rigged vessels depending on nation and region.


A two-masted vessel with square sails on the foremast and fore-and-aft sails on the mainmast. See also Hermaphrodite Brig. In the 17th century the term Brigantine was also used to describe any variety of small two-masted square-rigged vessels.


A relatively large two or sometimes three-masted European sailing vessel dating from the 15th through the 17th century, used mainly for the North-Sea herring fishery. Up to about 200 tons in size.

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A long narrow rowboat, similar to a skiff, used in the Middle East and is also the name of a light sailing vessel used in the eastern Mediterranean


A small, light and swift sailboat with a single triangular sail and an outrigger, originating in the East Indies. Also called Proa.


A relatively small but highly manoeuvrable Portuguese vessel of the 15th and 16th centuries setting lateen sails on two or three masts and sometimes a square sail on the foremast. Each mast increased in size from the one aft of it. When was classified as a ‘caravela latina’, when modified as a square-rigged vessel was classified as a ‘caravela redonda’.


A large sailing vessel developed from the earlier cog, in use from the 14th to the 17th century, usually with elevated structures known as castles at the

bow and stern.


A variety of square-rigged speed-built merchant ships built between 1790 and 1870. Often thought of as some of the most beautiful and elegant sailing vessels ever built. The three-masted Cutty Sark on display at Greenwich, England may well be the best known of the clippers.


Mediterranean equivalent for the Northern European cog. Introduced to the Mediterranean in the 14th century, a cocca was a one- or two-masted square-rigged and vessel. Also CocaCochaor Cocche.


A single-masted vessel used until the 15th century. The Cog originated in Northern Europe and spread throughout the Baltic and to the Mediterranean. The first mention of a cog is from 948 AD in Muiden near Amsterdam. Even though the usual clinker construction limited the ultimate size of a cog, the English chronicler Thomas Walsingham speaks of great cogs in 1331 with three decks and over 500 crew and soldiers. A cog is characterised by high sides, a relatively flat bottom, rounded bilge and a single square sail Also Kog (Dutch).


A broad beamed and shallow draught merchant sailing ship. They were designed to transport coal between ports. The HMS Bark Endeavour was a Whitby collier.


Smallest of all the three-masted square-rigged sailing warships. Used mainly for reconnaissance also called a ‘sloop-of-war’ and could be classified as a small frigate. Armed with 8-22 guns on only one deck.


A small single-masted and slow merchant vessel. Built solely for maximum hold capacity, not for it’s sailing qualities.


A small rounded boat made of hides stretched over a wicker frame; still used in some parts of Great Britain. Also called Coracle.


1. A fast-sailing single-masted vessel usually setting double and used for patrol and dispatch services. Cutters were the ships of choice for English smugglers during the 18th century. The largest were up to 150 tons burden and could carry up to 12 guns. 2. A clinker built ship’s boat used for travel between ship and shore.

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A small rowing or sailing boat, often a to a larger vessel.


A sailing vessel that originated in the Middle East. Early dhows were of shell-first construction. Most dhows are known by names referring to their hull shape.

The ghanjah is a large vessel with a curved stem and a sloping, often ornately carved .

The baghlah, was the traditional deep-sea dhow; it had a with five windows and a poop deck similar to European galleons.

Double-ended dhows, like the boom, have both stem and stern posts.

The battil, featured long stems topped by large, club-shaped stemheads and sternposts decorated with cowrie shells and leather.

The badan was a smaller and shallow draught vessel.


A two-masted Dutch fishing-vessel resembling a ketch.


A small, narrow, flat-bottomed and shallow draft boat of between 15 to 20 ft in length, usually with high sides and a sharp prow, propelled by oars. Also spelled Dorey (British).

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east indiaman

A large and heavily armed European merchantman used for trade between Europe and the East-Indies.

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A narrow, swift, sailing vessel used on the Nile and in the Mediterranean.

fifth rate

Sailing warship with 32-44 guns (1779).


A ship or boat that is deliberately set on fire and steered to collide with a larger enemy ship in order to set it on fire and destroy it. Fireships were often used in the 17th century to finish off disabled enemy vessels.

first rate

Sailing ‘ship of the line’ warship with 100 or more guns on three gun decks (1779).


The sailing warship carrying the admiral (or fleet commander) and his flag. Normally the most powerful ship in a squadron or fleet.


A classic three-masted, square-rigged merchant ship of the 17th century, invented by the Dutch to be economical in operation, carrying the largest cargo and smallest crew possible. It had a wide, balloon-like hull rounding at the stern and bow and a very narrow, high stern. Lightly armed, they were not well-suited for dealing with pirates, privateers or any other armed opposition.

fourth rate

Sailing ‘ship of the line’ warship with 50-60 guns on two gun decks (1779).


A three-masted sailing warship with two full decks, with only one gun deck. A frigate was armed with between 30 to 44 guns located on the gun deck and possibly some on the and forecastle, used in the 18th and 19th centuries, used for escort, reconnaissance and a myriad of other duties.

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A small fast sailing 17th-century shallow-draught flat-bottom Dutch ship mostly used as a coastal merchant vessel. They were also used on occasion as bomb vessels because of their stability and durability.


A large, three-masted galley/galleon hybrid of the 16th and 17th centuries that used both sails and oars. They were powerful warships of the day, very successful at the Battle of Lepanto, 1571.


square-rigged, three-masted (or four-masted) sailing ship in use from the 16th to the 18th centuries, particularly by the Spanish and Portuguese but also by most other European nations.


An oared fighting ship used mainly in the Mediterranean from many centuries BC until well into the 18th century. They were also used in the Baltic and by other northern European nations, just not to the same extent and duration as in the Mediterranean.

A galley a scaloccio is rowed by groups of three, five or seven men on a bench pulling a single oar, and a galley ala sensile has a single rower per oar, possibly two or three men to a bench (a terzaruolo). The top speed of a galley under full-oar has been estimated to be 7 or 8 .


Also Galiot; A light, fast galley formerly used in the Mediterranean.

ghost ship

Either a ship that appears as a ghostly apparition such as the Flying Dutchman, or a ship which is found floating at sea with no sign of the crew, such as the Mary Celeste.


1.A two-masted coastal vessel carrying lugsails. 2.A wide beamed 18th century ship’s boat, often reserved for use by a ship’s captain.

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hermaphrodite brig

A two-masted vessel, square-rigged on the foremast and fore-and-aft rigged with a square topsail on the mainmast.


1.Slang for an outdated, obsolete, unwieldy, or just ugly vessel. 2.A small fishing vessel using hooked (baited) lines. Also Hoeker (Dutch).


A single-, two- or even three-masted European coastal merchant and fishing vessel from the 17th and 18th century.


1.A medieval ship with the ends of the planks fitted parallel to the stern and sternposts. 2.A ship that has fallen into disuse or is used in a static role i.e. sheer hulk or prison hulk.

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jolly boat

All purpose boat onboard a ship.


A Chinese sailing vessel with bamboo sail battens and a long overhanging counter; originally developed during the 5th century.

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A two-masted sailing vessel with the stepped forward of the rudder head. They were usually fore-and-aft rigged but could have square sails. Sizewise, they were usually from 100 to 250 tons burthen. Often used in the role as a bombard vessel.


A clinker built Viking merchant ship, exceptionally sturdy in rough seas. Broader in the and more draught than a longship. They were also more reliant on the use of sails for propulsion, rather than oars. Also Knorr.

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An anchored ship acting as a floating lighthouse where building a lighthouse was not possible or impractical. Lightships would display a light at the top of a mast and in case of fog would sound a fog signal.


Name for Russian river, lake and sea vessels until the 16th century and later.


Langskip. Generally thought of as the Viking war ship. It was a 45–75ft (14–23m) galley with up to 10 oars on each side, a square sail on a removable mast, and a 50–60-man capacity. Double-ended and built shell-first with overlapping planks (clinker built).


The largest boat carried aboard a larger sea going vessel. Propelled by sail or oars.


A small ship rigged with one or more lugsails on two or three masts, and usually one, two or three jibs were set on the . Luggers usually outperformed square-rigged vessels in coastal tideways but required a larger crew then a square-rigged vessel of similar size. Often used by smugglers and privateers around the English Channel in the 18th century.

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man o’war

A term applied to a ship specifically built for the purpose of war. Instances of the term ‘man-of-war’ to indicate a warship are found as early as 1484.


Any vessel used for trade. The combined term of ‘merchant’ and ‘man’ occurs as early as 1473.


A small 16th century coastal merchantman carrying a square sail on a single mast.

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A classic medium-sized Spanish vessel of the age of exploration, having a fully developed three-masted rig and often a small topsail on the mainmast.


1.Also called a roundship, a single-masted ship used in Europe during the middle-ages until the 14th century, for example as transportation for the crusades. Descendant of the Viking longship a Nef still had a side-rudder and was used in Northern regions a century or two longer with a sternpost-rudder. 2.A French word for ship. 3.Drinking vessel in the shape of a ship.

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packet ship

The generic name given to a vessel that sailed in regular service between two ports.


A one to three-masted dhow-like vessel used off the west coast of India.


An ancient Greek galley with 50 oars, 25 each side set in a single bank.


Dutch term for a small open fishing vessel.


1.A variety of relatively small sailing vessels having generally two fore-and-aft rigged masts. 2.A 17th century ship’s boat, usually rowed with eight oars.


A sea-robber, or an armed ship that roams the seas without any legal commission, and seizes or plunders any vessel she meets indiscriminately, whether friend or foe. Some other names for a pirate were buccaneerfreebooter and skimmer.


A three-masted Mediterranean vessel, usually square-rigged on the mainmast, and on the foremast and . Some of them however carried square sails on all three masts. They carried one piece masts, neither topmast nor were present.


A variety of large Phoenician, Greek or Roman war galleys. In these large ‘Polyremes’, there were only two levels of oars, each being rowed by half the men indicated by the number. For instance, in an octoreme (8), there were 2 banks of oars, each rowed by 4 men, on each side of the ship. In a ‘decareme’ (10), each oar was manned by 5.

pot boat

An ancient boat made from clay or similar material for use in inland waterways.


A person or private vessel intent on raiding enemy shipping in wartime for the purpose of making a profit from the sale of captured ships, including whatever cargo would be onboard. A privateer could be described as a commissioned pirate. Dangerous business all-around, often a privateer would mistake a ‘friendly’ ship for fair game with the consequence of rapidly being ‘promoted’ from privateer to pirate.


A small square ended rowboat.

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A small two-masted vessel, common in Egypt around the 11th century, sailing down the Nile from Cairo and as far west as Tunisia and Sicily.

quarter boat

A boat hung from or located on a ship’s quarter.


A Mediterranean war galley having three banks of oars, the oars on the top two levels being pulled by two men each, the lower level oar being pulled by a single man. The quinquereme (5 rowers) was developed from the earlier trireme, rowed by three levels (or banks) of oars, each rowed by a single man. It was used by the Greeks of the Hellenistic period and later by the Carthaginians and Romans, from the 4th century BC to about the 1st century AD.

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In 1653 the British Admiralty’s Fighting Instructions classified the size and capabilities (guns mounted) of a sailing warship into 6 distinct rates. A first rate being the largest and most capable, a sixth rate being the least. The number of guns carried by a ship of a certain rate changed from time to time. Only the first four rates were considered fit for duty as ‘ships of the line’, all though fifth and sixth rates did join the battle from time to time.

retour ship

Generic name for a collection of different but relatively heavily armed, and well-manned merchant ships of the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC). They were specifically designed for the long roundtrip (retour) voyage from the Netherlands to the East Indies.


A medieval merchant sailing ship with a rounded stern and bow, as opposed to a sharp double-ended longship. A roundship often had a two-masted rig with a small foresail. Also called a nef.

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A vessel rigged with fore-and-aft sails on two or more masts. A topsail schooner sets one or two square sails on the foremast as well. Many further sub-divisions can be made such as Tern Schooners, Scow Schooners, Coastal Schooners and Grand Banks Schooners such as the Bluenose. Bald Headed Schooner is a term for a Schooner having/setting no topsails at all.


A variety of flat-bottomed vessels used for carrying cargo, often having a sloping square bow and stern. Similar to a barge, simple hull construction and maximum cargo capacity.

scow schooner

A flat-bottomed square-ended schooner-rigged vessel used mainly in the latter half of the 19th century on the Great Lakes and North-American coastal routes. Scow schooners often used centerboards or and the name scow refers to the shape of the hull. Scow schooners carried the bulk of cargo in North-America during the 19th century.

second rate

Sailing ‘ship of the line’ warship with 84-98 guns on three or two gun decks (1779).


1.A two-masted ship usually carrying lugsails. 2.A 17th century ship’s boat, used as a . Shallops had no keel but used instead. A shallop could be propelled by oars or sails.

sheer hulk

A cut-down, old ship fitted with a pair of sheers, used to hoist masts up to another ship that was being built or repaired.


In the 18-19th centuries a ship was defined as a first rank sailing vessel having a and three or more square-rigged masts (), each composed of a lowermast, a topmast, and often a .

Many earlier and other definitions of ship exist, just think of a single-masted Viking ship for example.

ship of the line

A sailing warship built to fight in the line of battle. The ‘line of battle’ meant that each ship would form in a line thus allowing each ship to fire full broadside salvos at the opponent. Ships of the line were usually all of fourth rate or above, most were third-rate ships of 74 guns.

sixth rate

Sailing warship with 20-30 guns (1779).


A small flat-bottomed ship’s boat, having a sharp pointed bow and a square stern. Could be propelled by oars or sail.


A single-masted fore-and-aft rigged vessel setting a and generally a single jib, or headsail (sometimes double – double-headsail sloop). Sloop and cutter are almost indistinguishable today, generally a sloop has her mast located more forward than a cutter.


A name given to the smallest three-masted sailing warships, having 8 to 22 cannon on only one deck. They were either fully rigged as ships (three-masted ship-sloop) or as snows. Also sometimes called ‘corvette’ (0riginally a French term) but brigs (two-masted brig-sloop) and cutters were also sometimes classified as sloops-of-war.


A small two-masted coastal fishing or merchant vessel, fore-and-aft rigged and very similar to a ketch.


A large two-masted sailing vessel, similar to a Brig.

“A Brig bends her boom-sail (or trysail) to the mainmast, while a Snow bends it to a trysail mast ( a small third mast stepped immediately aft of the mainmast): in other respects these two vessels are alike.” (Young’s Nautical Dictionary 1846.)


Dutch term for a vessel with a distinctive flat stern, with spiegel meaning mirror.

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Small sail and/or oar powered transport vessel used from the dark ages to about the late 12th century. Early medieval equivalent of a landing craft, they had doors used as ramps for loading and unloading men and their horses. Possibly derived from earlier Roman horse transports.


A small and nimble single- or two-masted sailing vessel originating in the Middle East and the north coast of Africa. Like the xebec, it is often associated with the Barbary corsairs.

A vessel attending to another vessel, in particular one that ferries supplies and personnel between ship and shore.

third rate

Sailing ‘ship of the line’ warship with 64-80 guns on two gun decks (1779).


A Dutch flat-bottomed vessel with rounded ends and . Used to carry freight and also often used as a pleasure yacht.


An ancient Greek galley with 30 oars, 15 each side set in a single bank.


An ancient Phoenician, Greek or Roman war galley propelled by three tiers (banks) of oars on each side, each oar being pulled by a single man, used from the 7th to the 4th century BC. Upper level oarsmen were called thranites, middle level zygites and lower level oarsmen were called thalamites. The hull was shell-first, mortise-and-tenon construction, planked with fir, cedar or pine while the keel was made of oak.

turtle ship

A 16th-century Korean armoured warship called Geobukseon or Kobukson in Korean. It was fitted with an iron shell (top) and sharp spikes for protection and to prevent boarding. They were developed and built by Admiral YI, SOON SHIN in 1592 who led Korea to victory in the IM JIN WAR (Korea vs. Japan; 1592-1598). The hull was built from red pine and a turtle ship carried cannons with such names as Heaven and Earth or in Korean, Chon and Ji. Comparable to a European 12 and 7pdr cannon respectively.

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west indiaman

A relatively heavily armed European merchantman used for trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas.


A sturdy purpose build vessel with a large hold. Intended for the catching of whales, many were used on polar expedition and/or by Navies around the world because of their sturdy nature.


A light and fast 17th century ship’s boat.

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A relatively small three-masted vessel favored by the Barbary corsairs operating off the coast of North Africa. These ships had long narrow hulls, and were fitted with oars like their galley predecessors. The xebec was adopted by the French and Spanish navies and called a chebec.

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Any of a variety of small sailing vessels. Often a personal transportation watercraft or a personal pleasure boat; i.e. captain’s yacht, royal yacht.


1. A small two-masted sailing vessel with the stepped astern of the rudder post. Similar to a ketch, which has its stepped forward of the rudder head or post. 2. A ship’s boat similar to, but smaller than a pinnace, usually rowed by four to six oars.

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A 16th century Spanish sailing vessel, smaller then a Galleon or Carrack. Zabra’s were used for dispatch, transport and other utilitarian duties.

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Definitions courtesy of Art of the Age of Sail. Introduction copyright The Dear Surprise.

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