The Age of Sail 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 development of steam-powered warships. The first purpose-built steam battleship was the 90-gun Napoléon in 1850. Multiple steam battleships saw action during the Crimean war, especially the Allied (British, French and Turkish) fleet Bombardment of Sevastopol as part of Siege of Sevastopol (1854–1855). The first ironclad battleship, Gloire, was launched by the French Navy in November 1859. In the March 1862 Battle of Hampton Roads, the ironclad CSS Virginia fought USS Monitor making this the first fight between ironclads.
The first sea-going steamboat was Richard Wright's first steamboat Experiment, an ex-French lugger; she steamed from Leeds to Yarmouth in July 1813. The first iron steamship to go to sea was the 116-ton Aaron Manby, built in 1821 by Aaron Manby at the Horseley Ironworks, and became the first iron-built vessel to put to sea when she crossed the English Channel in 1822, arriving in Paris on 22 June. She carried passengers and freight to Paris in 1822 at an average speed of 8 knots (9 mph, 14 km/h). The Suez Canal, in the Middle-East, which opened in 1869, was impractical for sailing ships and made steamships faster on the European-Asian sea route.
Golden Age of Sail
The period between the mid-19th century to 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.
A "New Age of Sail" has been predicted by some experts to occur by 2030, driven by a revolution in energy technology and a desire to reduce carbon emmissions from maritime shipping.
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