Naval Marine Archive - The Canadian Collection
Library Catalogue Ships database Research Collections Bibliography About us Donate

The term 'tall ship': appropriate or not?

The term has been in occasional use since at least Shakespearian times:

"The Goodwins, I think they call the place, a very dangerous flat, and fatal, where the carcasses of many a tall ship lie buried ...."
Shakespeare - Merchant of Venice
"I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
John Masefield - Sea Fever

and can also be found in folklore with "Mackerel sky and mare's tails make tall ships take in sails" (probably a corruption of "mackerel sky and mare's tails make lofty ships carry low sails").

A late-nineteenth-century definition of a 'tall ship' was one that crossed royal yards - at least among the pedants residing in their fo'c'sles, perhaps other dates and other communities used the words differently. When the "tall ship races" began, the term was probably used legitimately, though some of the big sail training ships at the time were bald-headed (nothing above the upper topgallants [1]). It is fairly evident, however, that "tall ship" as a generic term used in regard to sail training, races and other assemblages of sailing vessels, almost certainly owes its current popularity to modern media coverage of such events from the 1950s onward [2]. As a compound word 'tallship' it is an even more recent phenomenon. The term gained popularity in the 1970's and is frequently used to generically describe traditional sailing vessels of all rigs [The official title of the event became 'The Cutty Sark Tall Ships' Race' in 1972, and this is when the term tallship began to be bandied about].

The Sail Training Association have their own definition: "A 'Tall Ship' is not necessarily one of the great square-riggers; any vessel in which at least half the people on board are aged between 15 and 25 and which is over 30-ft waterline length can enter the races."

Some maritime researchers and shellbacks cringe when they hear the term, and it has been reported (marhist, 31 May 1995) that: "tall ship is a term for reporters and ignorant land lubbers." [3]

Looking for a consensus among maritime historians, the following can be found:

"Masefield wasn't using the term as a generic one for sailing ship, just indulging in a bit of poetic rhapsodizing. I'll bet he'd be one of the cringers if he were alive today." [4]

"The term 'a tall ship' does conjure a vision of something majestic, but even that is slipping as zealous owners substitute 'spar length' for the deck length...the term is now being applied to some quite small, er, vessels; and even now it is being even further modified to mean a heritage vessel...give 'em a few more years and a fibreglass run-about will be known as a 'tall ship', I hope I don't live to see the day." [5]

"'Tallship' is reporter-speak, dating back no further than the sixties, and my own preference would be to use more traditional terms, but it is now in such widespread use that I am afraid we must live with it. 'When I use a word,' Humpty-Dumpty said, in a a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean ...neither more nor less'." [6]

Proponents of the 'tallship' would argue that if it was good enough for Shakespeare and Masefield, why not use it as a handy catchall term, and these things have in any case a life of their own. Perhaps unfortunately, and like it or leave it, 'tallship' has now permanently entered the seafaring language.

[1] There were special terms for a vessel which did not set anything above topgallants 'Stump-topgallant rig', or 'baldheader'. In a general way, it is the introduction of some new 'thing' which demands a new 'name' to describe it, and in this case the innovation was the cutting down of the 'standard' rig, which included royals, and didn't need a special description. 'Baldheader' in this sense was more British usage than American. In North America, a 'baldheaded schooner' was commonly one without topsails - but technically referred to a schooner that didn't have topmasts, not topsails. The term "stump rig" referred to missing masts, not sails. Topsails of a sort could be, and were, set in schooners without benefit of a topmast, as were fisherman staysails.

[2] "In 1955 a London solicitor, Bernard Morgan, had the idea of organising a race to bring together the last of the world's great square-rigged ships. He obtained the support of Earl Mountbatten and together with influential people in the sailing world an organising committee was formed and went to work. The result was a spectacular race from Torbay to Lisbon in 1956 which caught the imagination not only of the public but also of the media who coined the phrase "Tall Ships' Race". It was judged to be such a success that the Committee drew up articles of association and formed the Sail Training Association (STA) in order that the Races could be put on a permanent footing." [dead link]

[3] 31 May 1995, Steve Lawson

[4] 1 Jun 1995, John Kohnen, the Max Robinson Institute

[5] 1 Jun 1995, Terry Ridings, Salt Spring Island, BC

[6] 15 Aug 2001, John Harland



Naval Marine ArchiveThe Canadian Collection
205 Main Street, Picton, Ontario, K0K2T0, Canada
Telephone: 1 613 476 1177
E-mail: for comments, queries and suggestions.

Copyright © 2024
Naval Marine Archive
The Canadian Collection

Revised: 21 January 2003