see it clearly

The sight of tall ship sails evokes visions of the romance of the seas, as captured so elegantly by John Masefield in his poem, "Sea Fever:"

"I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by…."

In the shipping industry, tall ships have evolved through history with ways to increase the ship's speed, safety, and efficiency while on the water. Whether you own a yacht or small sailboat, the ship's sails are your key to travel on the high seas.

Tall Sail Ships

Types of Tall Ships

Tall ship sails reflect the type of ship for which they are used. Sail arrangement and rigging run the gambit from the full-rigged ship to the modern sailboat of today. Sail rigs include two basic types: square rig or the fore and aft rig.

Full-Rigged Ship

The full-rigged tall ship is known for having at least three masts of polygon-shaped sails going from the larger course sail up to the small moonraker sail of each mast. The term "square rig" describes this type of rigging.

These rigs are arranged across the ship's body. Ships with these types of rigs may be what you think of as a pirate ship of the 19th century. These ships often sailed long passages across the seas, with their sail rigging aiding their voyage. This type of rigging reflects a bygone era of global ship travel and trade.


The schooner is an example of a fore and aft rig. The rig is probably along the lines of what you may think of as a modern-day sailboat. Rather than going across the ship like the square rigs, fore and aft rigs run parallel to the ship's keel in an up-and-down line.

The schooner has two or more masts. The masts reflect an aerodynamic arrangement, with the fore mast no taller than any behind it. The tall ship sails are triangular in shape. This type of sail arrangement gave the pilot better control and maneuverability. These ships often traveled along coastal areas engaging in shipping and trade along the way.


The sloop has one mast. The forward sail is the headsail, with the mainsail set behind it and higher up. The classic design includes a pole projecting forward from the bow of the boat referred to as a bowsprit. The purpose of the bowsprit is to increase the area for rigging additional sails, referred to as jibs or spinnakers. It may or may not be present on modern day ships.

The sloop offers several advantages. This type of tall ship is used for yachting and racing because of its speed. Historically, these ships were often used for fishing because of its maneuverability.

The sloop uses a type of fore-and-aft rig called a Bermuda rig. Bermuda, as the name would imply, is the origin of this rig. The rig made maneuvering the gusty Bermuda winds easier due to its sail arrangement. The use of one mast differentiates it from other uses of fore and aft rigs. For the today's tall ship owner, the Bermuda rig offers the same advantages.

Care of Tall Ship Sails

The purpose of the sails is to capture the force of the wind to propel the ship forward. The materials used to make sails include anything from canvas to sail cloth to synthetic materials such as carbon fiber films. Proper sail care is important to ensure the long life of the sails.

Sailing on the ocean necessitates regular cleaning to prevent the corrosive action of sea water from damaging the sails. Sails should be rinsed after ocean travel and allowed to dry thoroughly before storage or order to prevent mold from developing.

When not in use, the sails should be rolled and stored away from the harmful ultraviolet rays, which can damage the sails and fade any lettering on them. If you sail often, you should periodically inspect your sails for damage as part of your regular ship maintenance. A small repair is easily fixed and less expensive than dealing with extensive wear.

The tall ships of yesterday and today harken back to the golden age of sailing and the lure of the sea. The image of sails flapping in the breeze may be your siren's call to the water.

Chris Dinesen Rogers