Development of sail ships was truly a global effort. It began about 2000 BC when the Ancient Egyptians used sails on their Nile barges and reed boats. They were followed by The Phoenicians, In the centuries following 1200 BC, the Phoenicians formed the major naval and trading power of the region.
The Greeks and Phoenicians built and operated the first known Galleys to navigate the Mediterranean. Leeboards and centerboards were used circa 759 AD to stabilize the Chinese Junks and to improve their capability to sail upwind. Another characteristic of the Junks were their interior compartments which reinforced the ship’s structure and reduced the rapidity of flooding in case of holing. The world’s first truly intercontinental explorers were the Vikings, who probably crossed the Atlantic Ocean about 900 AD in their Longships. The Longship was the first true sailing ship because its sail was used for power most of the time. The next important development for sailing ships was the invention of the hinged rudder which first appeared around 1250 AD on small merchant ships, called Cogs.
The Xebec, greatly favored by Mediterranean nations as corsairs, contributed the lanteen sail. The European adoption of the lateen in the Late Middle Ages made ships more maneuverable, thus permitting merchants to sail out of the Mediterranean and into the Atlantic Ocean. About 1470, a revolution in sails occurred in Europe when the Caravel appeared with two and sometimes three sails. It still used lateen or triangular sails like the Mediterranean boats it was modeled on. It also had a new type of construction which was more streamlined than the clinker-built ships that went before, next came two ships which were really versions of the same thing; the Carrack and the Galleon. The Carrack was important because it always used square rigged sails on its foremast and mainmast and added a topmast to the mainmast. This meant that a second or third sail could be set on the mainmast. Ferdinand Magellan’s ship Vittoria was a carrack, which made the first circumnavigation of the globe.
The Galleon developed rapidly after 1570. It became a large and formidable fighting ship with which some of the great sea battles of history were fought. The cores of the opposing English and Spanish fleets in the 1588 confrontation of the Spanish Armada were galleons. The last great sailing ship was the Clipper. This sleek fast ship was designed for trade. A clipper was a very fast multiple-masted sailing ship of the 19th century. Generally narrow for their length, limiting in their bulk freight carrying capacities, and small by later 19th century standards, the clippers had a large relative sail area. When the last China Clippers were retired, they ended the age of the fastest commercial sailing vessels made by man. Their velocities have been improved upon many times by modern ocean yachts, but never by any commercial sail vessel. The Age of Sail came to an end with the emergence of the Steam ship in the second decade of the Twentieth Century.