The Age of Sail (usually dated as 1571–1862) was a period roughly corresponding to the early modern period in which international trade and naval warfare were dominated by sailing ships and gunpowder warfare, lasting from the mid-16th to the mid-19th centuries.
Like most periodic eras, the definition is inexact but instead serves as a general description. The term is used differently for warships and merchant vessels.
For warships, the age of sail runs roughly from the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, the last significant engagement in which oar-propelled galleys played a major role, to the Battle of Hampton Roads in 1862, in which the steam-powered ironclad CSS Virginia destroyed the sailing ships USS Cumberland and USS Congress, demonstrating that the advance of steam power had rendered sail power in warfare obsolete.
Golden Age of Sail
The period between the mid-19th century and the early 20th century, when sailing vessels reached their peak of size and complexity is sometimes referred to as the "Golden Age of Sail". During this time, the efficiency and use of commercial sailing vessels was at its peak—immediately before steamboats started to take trade away from sail.
Sailing ships continued to be an economical way to transport bulk cargo on long voyages into the 1920s and 1930s, though steamships soon pushed them out of those trades as well. Sailing ships do not require fuel or complex engines to be powered; thus they tended to be more independent from sophisticated dedicated support bases on land. Crucially though, steam-powered ships held a speed advantage and were rarely hindered by adverse winds, freeing steam-powered vessels from the necessity of following trade winds. As a result, cargo and supplies could reach a foreign port in a fraction of the time it took a sailing ship.
Sailing vessels were pushed into narrower and narrower economic niches and gradually disappeared from commercial trade. Today, sailing vessels are only economically viable for small scale coastal fishing, along with recreational uses such as yachting and passenger sail excursion ships.