May 26, 2023

How fast were old sailing ships?

Key Takeaway:

  • Ancient sailing ships traveled at varying speeds depending on the ship's size, design, and prevailing winds. Some could reach speeds of up to 10 knots or more, while others were much slower.
  • The advent of technological advances, such as the introduction of the steam engine, changed the speed and effectiveness of ships. However, sailing ships still played an important role in transportation and exploration for many centuries.
  • The voyages of explorers like Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama relied on the speed and reliability of their ships. Advances in navigation and shipbuilding allowed for longer journeys and greater discoveries, shaping the course of history.


Sailing Ships: How Fast Were They?

Sailing ships have always been an essential means of transportation and trade across the seas. Delving into the history of these ships brings light to their speed capabilities.

When it comes to measuring the speed of these ships, the knot is the unit of measure. The knot was determined by using a log line or a long rope tied with knots and thrown overboard. The time it would take for the ship to travel a certain distance was measured by counting the number of knots that passed through the sailor's hands.

It is fascinating to note that the fastest sailing ships of the past could reach speeds of 20 knots or more. This speed was a great improvement from the 12 knots speed of previous eras.

Pro Tip: To measure the wind speed, sailors used an anemometer, and to measure the speed of the current, a lead line was used. Such advances in technology helped sailors navigate the seas faster and more efficiently.

Ancient Sailing Ships

As I dive into the history of sailing ships, it’s fascinating to explore the evolution of ancient shipbuilding techniques. Let's take a journey back in time and explore the early Egyptian shipbuilding methods that were used to construct some of the earliest sailing ships.

Additionally, we'll examine the Roman Mercantile Marine, which led to the dominance of the Mediterranean Sea and the efficiency of Roman trade. By looking at these two sub-sections, we can gain a better understanding of the advancements that helped make sailing ships one of the most innovative inventions of their time.

Early Egyptian shipbuilding

Since ancient times, the Nile has played a pivotal role in Egyptian civilization. The early Egyptian shipbuilding started as early as 4000 BC and was a significant development in the history of water transport. These ships were constructed using wood and reed, two readily available materials in Egypt at that time.

Egyptian shipbuilders used various designs for their boats, such as the crescent-shaped vessel or "dhow," which was ideal for traversing the Nile's narrow channels. Another popular design was the cargo boat known as Kikar, designed to carry goods downriver to different markets throughout Egypt.

The use of sails made for faster travel times, and some boats became much larger to accommodate more passengers and cargo. These ships were called "Byblos" after the Lebanese coast from where they originated and were capable of making long journeys across the Mediterranean Sea.

Pro Tip: Early Egyptian shipbuilding represents a brilliant mix of innovation and practicality that led to great progress in water travel.

Even the ancient Romans knew that sailing was all about the Benjamins, with their extensive mercantile marine.

Roman Mercantile Marine

The maritime trade of the ancient Roman Empire is referred to as the 'Roman Mercantile Marine'. It was an essential component of the empire's economy and helped the empire in expanding its reach beyond its borders. The Roman Mercantile Marine was a well-organized system where goods were transported across the Mediterranean Sea, along with ports in Persia, India, and Africa.

Below is a table showcasing some key information related to the Roman Mercantile Marine:

Important Trading RoutesAfrica, Persia, India
Main ImportsSpices, silk, cotton, ivory
Main ExportsWine, Olive oil, Grain
Famous PortsOstia Antica - Rome's harbor city
Puteoli - One of Italy's busiest ports

Notably, the Roman warships also played a role in protecting these merchant ships from pirate attacks on high seas. These ships were designed to be fast and agile for battle use. The Romans had developed advanced technology in shipbuilding that allowed them to create larger and more advanced merchant ships that could carry goods to faraway lands.

In addition, one of the most famous naval battles in history happened between Rome and Carthage at sea - The Battle of Actium. It ended with Octavian's victory as he defeated Cleopatra and Mark Antony.

It should be noted that this marine had a significant impact on commerce and culture during the time period and still influences global trade centuries later. Prepare to set sail through history as we delve into the power and might of the fighting ship, where battles were won with both strength and strategy.

The Power and Might of the Fighting Ship

As a history buff and maritime enthusiast, I've always been fascinated with the power and might of fighting ships from the past. The Athenian Trireme and Roman Ships are two classic examples of the technological advancements that made old sailing ships formidable vessels on the high seas. Through examining the history and design of these ships, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the incredible feats accomplished by ancient naval cultures.

Let's explore the power and might of these incredible vessels.

Athenian Trireme

The naval vessel used by Athenians is a highly advanced and massive trireme designed for maritime warfare. It is named after Athens, the city of its origin.

DesignThe hull is long and narrow, with three banks of oars on each side.
Power sourceRelying on human power, it was usually rowed by 170 oarsmen seated in tiers along the length of the deck.
SizeIt measures about 37 m in length and can carry up to 200 soldiers.

Athenian Triremes were known for their speed. They could travel at about nine nautical miles per hour (17 km/h).

To experience what it would be like to row a Greek trireme, you can use an ergometer or indoor rower that simulates the movements of actual ship oars.

To enhance your understanding of Athenian Triremes' history, you can visit ancient seaports or museums where artifacts from ancient civilizations are displayed.

Roman ships may have been mighty, but even they couldn't handle the rough seas of my ex's emotions.

Roman Ships

The maritime history of the ancient Romans was advanced and well-documented. According to historical data, Roman ships were primarily used for commercial purposes such as trade, fishing and transport of troops across the Mediterranean. These were designed based on a combination of Greek, Phoenician and Etruscan naval architecture with added modifications unique to the Roman Empire.

Below is a table that displays some key characteristics of Roman Ships:

Merchant vesselsWith space for cargo & manned by skilled seamen
WarshipsLike quinqueremes, ranged from 100 to 375+ crew members
GalleysCarried prisoners/slaves and sometimes used as pleasure ships

One of the unique features of Roman Ships was their innovative triangular sail design that allowed for greater speed and manoeuvrability in different wind conditions. This gave them a distinct advantage over earlier wooden galley warships found in rival fleets.

It is suggested that modern-day manufacturers could learn from their design techniques such as using high-quality wood, treatment methods to prevent wood-eating organisms and vessel construction tactics like stacking planks diagonally. These practices can be explored by shipbuilding industries around the world today to build efficient ships with better speed and longevity.

Vikings didn't just conquer the seas, they dominated them with ships so impressive, even their enemies wanted a closer look.

The Mastery of Vikings

The Prowess of Viking Sailors

Viking sailors were exceptional in their mastery of the sea. Their sailing ships were swift and efficient, enabling them to traverse long distances at remarkable speeds. The Vikings' shipbuilding expertise allowed them to construct vessels that could withstand the harsh and unpredictable weather conditions of the seas. Their navigational skills also set them apart from their contemporaries.

These sailors relied on their knowledge of the surrounding environment, using landmarks and natural phenomena such as the position of the sun and stars to navigate. This skill was vital in a time when technology was not advanced enough to offer reliable navigational aids. The Vikings' ability to sail in challenging weather conditions and unknown territories made them fearsome seafarers.

One unique aspect of Viking ships was their flexibility and versatility. The vessels were designed to be modified according to the needs of the crew. This allowed them to adapt to different sailing conditions and also to carry out raids and trading expeditions.

To truly appreciate the mastery of Viking sailors, it is essential to understand the cultural and societal context in which they operated. The Viking era was characterized by exploration, conquest, and trade, and the ability to sail was a crucial element of their way of life.

Medieval Ships

As we delve into the world of medieval ships, we can truly appreciate the incredible feats of engineering and navigation that were accomplished with these vessels. In examining these ships, it’s impossible to ignore the monumental journeys undertaken by Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama.

These two explorers pushed the boundaries of what was thought to be possible, traveling further and faster than any sailors before them. As we explore the voyages of these two renowned sailors, we gain a deeper understanding of the incredible capabilities of medieval ships and the awe-inspiring journeys they made possible.

Voyages of Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama

The notable voyages made by Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama are significant maritime events. Their expeditions transformed the global perspective, as they explored new lands beyond Europe, mainly the Americas and India, leading to subsequent colonization. During his first voyage in 1492, Columbus discovered America while attempting to find a new route that would shorten the existing sea path to Asia.

Ever wondered how did sailing ships get fresh water?

Da Gama's expedition in 1497-1499 marked the first European arrival in India by sea route, opening new trade opportunities for Europe and commencing colonization of India. These voyages brought about a massive transformative impact on socio-political and economic aspects globally.

Moreover, Columbus' voyage had several adverse consequences such as destroying native civilization, slavery of indigenous people and mass genocide due to infections carried by Europeans who arrived with him. Da Gama's journey, on the other hand, led to brutalities towards indigenous people; however it also paved the way for increased trade between India and Portugal.

These bold explorers helped pioneer ocean navigation that enabled future discoveries around the world.


Sailing ships of the past had varying speeds based on the ship's type and the available wind power. The speed of a ship with full sails could range from 5 knots to 20 knots per hour, depending on the wind direction and strength. The type of the ship also played a crucial role in determining its speed. For example, clipper ships were faster than traditional merchant ships, but they required a large crew to operate. Interestingly, despite technological advancements in shipbuilding, some modern cargo ships do not match the speeds of their old predecessors.

Five Facts About How Fast Old Sailing Ships Were:

  • ✅ The biggest cargo ship in 2014, the Mary Maersk, crosses oceans at a speed of 17.8 knots, which is only two or three times faster than Roman merchant ships could achieve.
  • ✅ The first sailing boat was developed by the Egyptians around 3100 BC and may have started to take to the open sea around 2,700 BC.
  • ✅ The Athenian trireme was about 30 meters long, with 170 oarsmen who could propel it at a sustained speed of 6 knots.
  • ✅ Viking ships had a shallow draft and could reach speeds of between 5-10 knots, with a top speed of around 15 knots under favourable conditions.
  • ✅ Christopher Columbus's flagship, La Santa María de la Inmaculada Concepción, was only 17.7 meters long, while Vasco da Gama's flagship, the São Gabriel, was only 25.7 meters long.

FAQs about How Fast Were Old Sailing Ships

What was the average speed of an old sailing ship?

In ancient times, the average speed of a sailing ship was around 6 knots (6.9 mph) for a trireme, which could be increased with better weather conditions and skilled rowers. Roman merchantmen could achieve a speed of two or three times that of a modern cargo ship, crossing the oceans at a speed of 17.8 knots.

How fast did ships go in the 1500s?

Ships in the 1500s usually traveled at a speed of around 3-4 knots on average. Columbus's flagship, La Santa María de la Inmaculada Concepción, was only 17.7 m long, and Vasco da Gama's, the São Gabriel, was only 25.7 m.

What was the fastest 1800s sailing ship?

The American clipper ship, the Flying Cloud, was the fastest sailing ship in the 1800s, setting a record of 89 days from New York to San Francisco in 1851. It sailed at an average speed of 14 knots, roughly twice as fast as most other ships of that time.

What were the wooden ships that dominated the Mediterranean region?

The Mediterranean region was dominated by wooden ships, which were powered by oarsmen and the wind. Athens, in particular, was home to impressive triremes, with a length of around 30m, driven by 170 oarsmen, which could achieve a sustained speed of 6 knots. Roman ships were powered by both oars and sail, and were not so different from Athenian ships in terms of size and speed.

What kind of boats did the Vikings sail?

The Vikings sailed light, graceful and maneuverable vessels, known as longships, which they carried over small stretches of land to reach the sea beyond. With their shallow draft, longships could reach speeds of between 5-10 knots, and the top speed of a longship under favorable conditions was around 15 knots.

What kind of boats did the Egyptians sail?

The Egyptians likely developed the first sailing boat around 3100 BC, and these were made from bundles of papyrus reeds lashed together with square sails of papyrus to catch the wind. Egyptian boats were steered using a long oar, and may have started to venture out onto open seas around 2700 BC.


  • John Sixthsmith

    I'm a freelance writer and avid sailor who loves to share my passion for the sea with others. I've written articles for various sailing magazines and websites, covering topics such as sailing destinations, boat maintenance, navigational tips, and marine wildlife. I went on a short sailing trip whilst on holiday as a child and was instantly hooked. I've been sailing ever since. Although I've done a fair amount of lake sailing in my time, my real passion is the ocean. I hope you enjoy reading this blog about sailing as much as I've enjoyed writing about it.