What Is a Tall Ship?

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  • Written By: Dan Cavallari
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 07 April 2020
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A tall ship is a type of sailing vessel that is usually quite large and built in a traditional style. Schooners, for example, are considered tall ships, as are brigantines. A tall ship will feature numerous sails used for propelling the vessel forward and steering it, as well as one or more masts to which the sails can be secured. Almost all tall ships feature bowsprits, which extend from the prow of the ship at an upward angle. The foresails are often secured to the bowsprit, and sails that are not in use can be secured to the bowsprit as well.

The sail and mast configurations are far different than more modern ship designs because a traditional tall ship uses wooden masts instead of more modern aluminum or lightweight steel masts, in addition to heavier sails that are less versatile than modern versions. Most modern sailing vessels utilize a Bermuda rig, which is a sail configuration that uses fewer sails than a tall ship, as well as lightweight sails that are more maneuverable. Tall ships feature more complex rigging that uses several smaller sails rather than just two or three large sails, like modern vessels.


The shape of the sails on a tall ship will vary significantly from the shape of sails on a Bermuda rig. Tall ships feature square rigs or gaff rigs; gaff rigs have four corners, but one side of the sail will be longer than the other, resulting in an irregular shape. The specific shape of the gaff rig will depend on its placement on the ship; a fore gaff rig will have a different shape than an aft gaff rig. Square rigs are often mounted on masts in a stacked configuration, with the lower sails being larger than the upper sails.

A tall ship is likely to feature one or more foresails, which are sails that extend off the bow of the ship. These sails are used primarily for steering, and they are attached to the bowsprit. Extending these sails off the front of the ship makes for more maneuverability. A spanker is a sail that will extend off the aft of the ship for more maneuverability. Topsails are a common feature on tall ships as well; these are essentially sails set on top of another sail. This stacked design allows for the use of smaller sails that are more maneuverable.


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