Last Days of Sail

Schooners are used primarily for pleasure and racing

A schooner is a sailboat with a small mast near the bow and a mainmast at midship. Schooners are used primarily for pleasure and racing.

Sailing ships of the later 19th century underwent dramatic changes. Hulls were built of iron and later, steel. Steel also replaced wood in masts, and shipbuilders turned to wire and chain instead of rope made from hemp. The new materials enabled the construction of huge sailing ships, such as the German-built Preussen (1902), a five-masted steel ship over 120 m (400 ft) long. Preussen carried 47 sails that had a total area of 4,650 square meters (5,560 square yards). Some of these vessels carried auxiliary steam engines with propellers. The largest merchant sailing vessel ever built, the 128-m (419-ft) France II, carried two steam engines.

The efficiency and growing reliability of steam-powered vessels hastened the end of the age of sail. Steamships edged out sailing ships in the Chinese tea trade following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, and in the South American nitrate trade when the Panama Canal opened in 1914. The use of U-boats in World War I (1914-1918) to attack merchant ships created a need for military escorts, but sailing ships were vulnerable and not well suited to sail in closely formed convoys.

One of the last remaining uses for sailing ships was transoceanic mail delivery. Called packet boats after the British nickname for the mail dispatch, mail ships were built for speed. They carried mail to overseas locations, usually under the control of the home country. Britain ran post office packet ships on regular runs in the early 19th century. But by the mid-19th century, the British were contracting with private firms, such as the Cunard Line and the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, to deliver mail in steamships.

The surviving great sailing ships found roles as training ships for navies, and several still serve in this capacity today. They can often be seen together at maritime festivals and other gatherings of tall ships. Today the legacy of the great sailing ships lives on in the competitive and leisure-time activity of modern sailing.

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