History of Sailing & Boat Types

History of Sailing & Boat Types | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

June 15, 2022

A Brief History of Ships

When and where did sailing originate? The answer to that question is threaded through our entire written history. Humans have been using various forms of boats to travel by water for longer than we have had written language. The oldest known reference to a ship was from approximately 10,000 BCE, where a carving depicted a reed rowing ship that carried twenty men. Experts believe that boats were around a lot longer than that though so far, there has been no physical proof. Ship travel is older than any other form of transportation and has been steadily improving over the millennia.

It has been determined that the first sea-worthy ships were not even built by humans but by their evolutionary predecessors, Homo Erectus, nearly 800,000 years ago. This explains how they were able to spread across the planet. The mega sailing ships and cutting edge boats of today are direct descendants of those ships built by an extinct species so long ago. It is stunning to think of how far we have come while remaining tied to the water.

Since then, ships have been made of every conceivable material, and they were used to spread people around the globe before other types of transportation like airplanes came into use. These trusty vehicles are still valued and used for warfare, commerce, and recreational sports.

They are testaments to human ingenuity and perseverance. Over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, there have been many significant changes made to the way in which boats are made, sailed, and appreciated by the general public. This article will go over the different kinds of boats, historical events, and ships of significance and also a brief glimpse of current 21st-century sailing.


Table of contents

Types of Boats and When They Originated

There have been many kinds of ships and floating transportation used throughout mankind's history. With so many years and different civilizations traveling by water to explore, trade, and wage wars, there have been a large number of boats for every conceivable purpose. As building materials improved through the ages, so have the designs of seaworthy ships.

Below is a timeline of the history of various types of boats and the advent of any significant shipping features.


Most of the earliest boats were lashed together rafts of anything that would float (e.g., reeds, bamboo, balsa, and other woods, etc.). All of these types of rafts and small boats are still in use today around the world. There is no single geographical location that can be narrowed down for when and where rafts started as a means of water transportation.

Sailing Boats

The first sailing boats recognized by historians were those used by Egyptians in 4000 BCE. They were made of reeds and traveled the Nile using masts and sails.

Invention of Planks

It was not until around 3000 BCE, the Metal Age when tools were invented that allowed for the creation of planks that could be used in boat building. Planks made it possible to construct very large ships for war and trading. The first civilizations to use these types of larger ships were the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Egyptians. Egyptians at around 2500 BCE were starting to use larger ships to travel across the ocean.

Galley Ships

A galley ship is propelled by rowing and sails. These were quite common starting in 1550 BCE until the early 19th century. Originally, they were employed most notably by the Phoenicians. War galleys were quite popular until the late 16th century, after which they began to be phased out. These ships are most known for being warships but were also used for trade and piracy. The battle of Lepanto in 1571 is history's largest naval battle involving rowing ships and involved over 400 galley ships.

Long Boats

Common among the Vikings, these ships also used sails and rowers but were built to be much narrower and longer. They started being constructed for long-distance travel around 1000 AD. These amazing ships were created for exploration and conquest. Made with long overlapping planks and a single large mainsail, they were easily identified and were used to travel between Scandinavia and the coasts of France, Britain, and Spain.


The Chinese junk ships employed sails reinforced with bamboo for better aerodynamics, bulkheads to separate sections, and rudders. They came into common use around 1100 AD. In 1405 and until 1433 there were many trips across the Indian Ocean made by Zheng He who worked for the Ming emperor of China. These were exceptional craft for their time. The most massive junk ship was 150 meters long and had nine different masts.


Invented in the 14th century by the Dutch, the yachts were mostly used by rich ship merchants who used these as personal celebratory vehicles. They were also used for a time by the Dutch navy.

Spanish Galleon

Unlike the galley ships that were mainly propelled forward using oars, the Spanish Galleon used enormous sails. They were so big that it took multiple people to take them in and out using thick ropes. They were used in the 16th century to transport goods to and from the Americas. These were also used by pirates and have become the iconic historical sailing ship in the media.

Steam Powered Ships

The world's first steam-powered ships were built in 1819 and were mostly used for transporting people and goods across the Atlantic Ocean.

Clipper Ships

Fast with tall masts and longboat type hulls, the Clipper boats were created in the 1800s. One of the largest, the Royal Clipper was one of the largest ships of its kind for decades, and it featured a five-masted barque.


Metal ocean liners first started being used in the mid-1800s. Most of these steel-hulled ships were competing between the economic interests of the United Kingdom and Germany.

Paddle Steam Boats

Riverboats that used paddles and steam to power them up and down between river towns began to be used in the late 1800s.

Diesel Powered Ships

Around 1910 the steam-powered ships started getting converted to diesel.


The idea of a hovercraft - a boat that floated on cushions of air-filled fabric - was invented in 1955 by Christopher Cockerell.

Container Ships

Cargo ships hauling large containers were utilized starting in the 1980s, and their use and size have continued to grow in the decades since then.

Cruise Liners

Ships used specifically as get-away, recreational locations came into popularity in the 1990s, and they have been around since though their popularity has waxed and waned over the years.

Historical Sea Crossings and Events

Most of the world's continents were populated long before the invention of writing, but a few were rediscovered through sea travel. These historical sea crossings and events are responsible for some of the most important war, exploration, and trade journeys recorded throughout history.

Prior to the 15th Century

  • Greenland was discovered between 980-982 by the Norse sailing explorer Erik the Red.
  • Around eight years later, Erik the Red's son, Leifur, reached Newfoundland.
  • The Norse continued to sail and expand their travel near Vinland by boat, including the married explorers Thorfinn Karlsefni and Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir.

15th to 18th Century

  • Christopher Columbus, starting in 1942, began several famous sea voyages that led to the discovery of the Americas.
  • In 1500, Pedro Álvares Cabral sailed to Brazil.
  • The Straits of Magellan are named after Ferdinand Magellan, who sailed through them from Spain to reach the South Atlantic in 1519.
  • In 1563 Nicolas Barre was among a group that was the first to build ships in the Americas and sail them all the way across the Atlantic. It was a harsh journey, and only seven of their number survived.
  • The first Atlantic trade route was mapped and utilized in 1566 by the West Indies fleets.
  • In 1732 the Ann crossed the Atlantic from London and reached the area that is now Georgia carrying the famous James Oglethorpe.
  • William Harrison sailed using the H-4 timepiece in 1764. The device on that particular voyage allowed for the creation of longitude.

19th Century

  • The first steamship that sailed across the Atlantic was the SS Savannah in 1819.
  • In 1865 the very first successful transatlantic telegraph cable was put in place by the SS Great Eastern.
  • The Norwegians Frank Samuelsen and George Harbo were the first to row all the way across the Atlantic, and they did so in 1896.

20th Century

  • In April of 1912, the RMS Titanic hit an iceberg and sank, and there was a loss of well over 1,200 lives. This is one of the most famous instances of a boat sinking and began a period during which many boats were sunk with large numbers of people on board. The increase of war and transport vessels led to many more instances with similar loss of life.
  • In the years between 1914-1918 during WWI, approximately 2,100 ships sunk and 153 U-boats were destroyed.
  • In WWII, 1939-1945, it was reported that roughly 3,700 ships were sunk and 783 U-boats were destroyed.
  • Ann Davison, in 1952, became the first woman to sail alone across the Atlantic Ocean.
  • Quite a few individuals crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the 1960s alone, but Robert Manry was the only one to do so without stopping, and he did it in 1965 using his sailboat Tinkerbelle.
  • Gérard d'Aboville was the first man to row single-handedly across the Atlantic, and he did so in the year 1980.
  • The first woman to single-handedly cross the Atlantic in a rowboat was Tori Murden in 1991. The entire journey took over 81 days.

Famous Ships in History

These are the ships that you have read about in history books and heard through the retelling of stories. They each played a part in creating the world that we live in today. These were all unique either due to their physical presence or a way they were used, and they are a small number of the thousands of important ships that have helped carry our species across this great globe.

Santa Maria

Originally named Marigalante, the ship sailed by Christopher Columbus was 117 feet and had three masts and a deck. It was also equipped with bombards and fire granite balls. On Dec. 25, 1492, she was run aground near Haiti. The Santa Maria was the largest of the three ships that Christopher and his crew sailed across the Atlantic Ocean. Parts of the ship are still searched for by ship-wreck hunters though pieces of what was believed to be The Santa Maria were found in the mid-2010s.


It is believed that the ship which brought the pilgrims over to Plymouth, Massachusetts, to establish the New England colony was approximately 90 feet and square-rigged. This sailing ship made its trip in 1620 bringing supplies and new settlers to the Americas from England.

U.S.S. Constitution

The warship U.S.S. Constitution was also referred to as "Old Ironsides." It is the oldest commissioned warship and was launched in 1797, and it is currently kept in Portsmouth, England. It is 204 feet and could carry around 450 crew members and 50 guns. The U.S.S. Constitution was the flagship in the Tripoli pirate war that took place in the early 1800s. There were other victories over the many years of its service that left it with the famous nickname, including the War of 1812. This vessel saw many skirmishes on the seas and remains a stalwart reminder of many wartime events.

HMS Victory

This is by far the most famous of the royal ships. It was launched in 1765 and was designed by Sir Thomas Slade. At 186 feet it was able to carry 100-guns and roughly 800 men. Although it sailed through many adventures, the HMS Victory is most known for being the flagship under the control of Admiral Horatio Nelson during the Battle of Trafalgar which took place in 1805. The ship has been partially dismantled and has been part of a museum since 1928.

RMS Titanic

Everyone knows the name Titanic. There have been books, movies, plays, and songs written about this tragedy. What had been a promising ship turned into a cautionary tale. This luxury liner was meant to cross from New York to England in 1912. It sunk early April 15th after striking an iceberg. Of the over 2,200 crew and passengers approximately 1,500 were killed. This remains one of the most tragic events of the 20th century.

HMS Beagle

This British navy ship was commissioned in 1820 and sailed all around the world. It was responsible for transporting Charles Darwin to South America among other places. During this voyage is when the naturalist developed his theory of evolution based on the species that he studied. The ship was 90 feet 4 inches and had two masts. It was intended as a naval scout and took part in other light duties. The observations that Charles Darwin made while traveling aboard the HMS Beagle changed the thread of scientific discovery.

Flying Cloud

This clipper ship had quite a history. It was 225 feet and incredibly fast. Captain Josiah Perkins Creesy set a record in 1854 for sailing from Cape Horn to San Francisco, and his speed record was not beaten for nearly 130 years. This ship is also famous for having set an early speed record for the same trip, but with the ship under the control of Josiah's wife, Eleanor Creesy.

Battleship Bismarck

This was a German battleship in WWII launched in 1939 as part of the Nazi navy. This was one of the largest class of warships made by the German army and reached a length of 792 feet, 8 inches at the waterline. It sailed for eight months during WWII and spent that time raiding allied ships in the Atlantic Ocean. In 1941 after sustaining heavy damage from allied forces, it was scuttled and sank. The wreck was later discovered in 1989 by Robert Ballard.

Sailing for Sport

Sailboats have been used for hundreds of years to break speed records around the world, and that kind of sport sailing has only increased within the last decade. This kind of pastime has evolved to the point where there are Olympic sailing classes, international sailing clubs, and even an International Sailing Federation (ISAF), which was created to make the sport safer.

The ISAF was originally called the International Yacht Racing Union (IYRU), which was created in 1907 as a way of regulating sailing rules. This allowed sailors from all over the globe to compete together since they no longer had incongruous letters of the law to follow when competing during sailing competitions. Everything from the uniform to safety precautions became standardized. In 1960 a universal set of rules was agreed upon by multiple parties, which made it easier for everyone involved in sport sailing.

There are multiple sailing disciplines that are a part of the sport today. They include but are not limited to the following.

  • Fleet
  • Match Racing
  • Team Racing
  • Speed Sailing
  • Wave Riding

In addition, there are also several different types of courses that one might sail along during these events. These are listed below.

  • Short Course Racing
  • Coastal and Inshore Racing
  • Offshore Racing
  • Oceanic Racing

Most of these have been around for over a hundred years, and the longevity of the sport makes it attractive to a lot of new sailors because there is a rich history to become a part of and learn about. Even today, boat designers are constantly attempting to push the envelope and creating something newer and faster than any ships that have come before. That kind of drive and competition is what has allowed shipping to remain such a solid part of our species' history throughout the millennia. Sailing provides an escape for many people who are tired of a digitized, impersonal world. It is a way to connect back with nature and our own past.

Modern Era Sailing

The 'age of sail' was from 1571 to 1862, when the majority of all ships were masted vessels. In the last several hundred years, ship sailing has taken on a more recreational aspect. With the advent of airplanes, there was a much faster and safer way to travel across the oceans. That being said, they are still used for war and commerce. However, for the most part, sailing boats are relegated to sports and transportation while heavier motored ships with no need for sails have taken over most of the cross-Atlantic duties.

While most sailing is done on light craft close to the shoreline, there are still plenty of adventurous skippers who spend months or even years at sea using only sails to guide them across the oceans. People stay aboard sailboats that are docked as well going out into open waters rarely but using the living space. It is eco-friendly and less expensive than renting in some areas. No matter what you are interested in there is a masted vessel that can give you what you are looking for, whether it be exploring the seas, vacationing near the continent's shoreline, or traveling for business or pleasure across the oceans.

Now that you know more about the history of these amazing watercraft, it is easier to sit back and recognize all of humankind's collective accomplishments. There are thousands of voyages that have changed the path of human evolution and created the world that we live in today. Trade routes, wars, and exploration have all played a part in creating the countries and economies that we live within. There are few things in the history of the world that have left so deep and everlasting an impact as sailing ships and other boats.

In 2020 there is an ever-growing number of personal sailing ships available to buy on the market. Sloops, dinghies, schooners, yawls, and yachts are just a few of the ships available for people to use for going out to sea with their friends and families. In a world that is constantly shrinking with the advent of ever-increasing communication technology, being able to disconnect for a while and feel a sense of adventure is a gift.

History of Sailing & Boat Types
Daniel Wade

Daniel Wade

I've personally had thousands of questions about sailing and sailboats over the years. As I learn and experience sailing, and the community, I share the answers that work and make sense to me, here on Life of Sailing.

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