The Age of Sail is a period that lasted at the latest from the mid-16th (or mid-15th) to the mid-19th centuries, in which the dominance of sailing ships in global trade and warfare culminated, particularly marked by the introduction of naval artillery, and ultimately reached its highest extent at the advent of the analogue Age of Steam. Enabled by the advances of the related Age of Navigation, it is identified as a distinctive element of the early modern period and the Age of Discovery. Especially in context of the latter, it refers to a more particular Eurocentric Age of Sail, while generally the Age of Sail is the culminating period of a long intercontinental history of sailing. A sailing ship is a sea-going vessel that uses sails mounted on masts to harness the power of wind and propel the vessel. There is a variety of sail plans that propel sailing ships, employing square-rigged or fore-and-aft sails. Some ships carry square sails on each mast—the brig and full-rigged ship, said to be ship-rigged when there are three or more masts.Others carry only fore-and-aft sails on each mast, for instance some schooners. Still others employ a combination of square and fore-and-aft sails, including the barque, barquentine, and brigantine.
Early sailing ships were used for river and coastal waters in Ancient Egypt and the Mediterranean. Blue water sea-going sailing ships were first independently invented by the Austronesian peoples with the fore-and-aft crab-claw sail as well as the culturally unique catamaran and outrigger boat technologies. These enabled the rapid Austronesian expansion into the islands of the Indo-Pacific since 3000 BC from an origin in Taiwan, as well as facilitated the first maritime trading network in the Indo-Pacific from at least 1500 BC. Later developments in Asia produced the junk and dhow—vessels that incorporated innovations absent in European ships of the time.
European sailing ships with predominantly square rigs became prevalent during the Age of Discovery, when they crossed oceans between continents and around the world. In the European Age of Sail, a full-rigged ship was one with a bowsprit and three masts, each of which consists of a lower, top, and topgallant mast. Most sailing ships were merchantmen, but the Age of Sail also saw the development of large fleets of well-armed warships. The Age of Sail waned with the advent of steam-powered ships, which did not depend upon a favourable wind.