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What Is a Barque?

By Christian Petersen
Updated May 23, 2024
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A barque is a type of sailing ship from the age of sail and is first mentioned in the 15th century. To be classified as a barque, a ship must have a particular arrangement of masts and sails. Barques have at least three masts and square sails on all masts, except the aft, or mizzen mast, and possibly the foremast. The term barque was also sometimes used to refer to another type of ship, the barca-longa. A third type of ship, from ancient Egypt, is also called a barque.

Most commonly used to describe sailing ships, the term barque covers a wide range of ship designs and features, but certain things are common to all ships of this type. To be classified as a barque, a ship must have at least three masts, and be primarily square-sailed, with fore and aft sails on the aftermost mast. This sail configuration is considered to be the best possible compromise between a full-rigged ship and a ship rigged entirely with fore and aft sails.

Full-rigged ships are the most capable ships overall, under a variety of wind conditions. A fore- and-aft sailed ship is regarded as the best type of ship for windward sailing. A barque utilizes the best features of both types of rigging styles and often performs nearly as well as these other types of ships. They are often nearly as fast as a fore-and-aft rigged ship of similar size and draft, but also sail well in less than favorable winds.

When used as a short form for the ship known as a barca-longa, the term barque refers to a two or three masted ship, rigged with lug sails, which are a modified type of square sail. These ships were commonly used as fishing vessels and light warships along the coast of Spain and Portugal and in the Mediterranean. They were also used in Great Britain.

Egyptian barques were long, barge-like ships used in ancient Egypt. They varied widely in size, and often had one mast and a bank of oars. They were used to transport goods and passengers along the Nile and also played a prominent role in Egyptian funerary rituals. The ancient Egyptians believed that by burying someone with with a barque, they were giving them the means to travel from this world to the afterlife. Many barques have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs and depicted in carvings from the period.

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Discussion Comments
By Mor — On Jan 01, 2012

@croydon - I believe you can still see real barque ships sailing here and there. Probably more than you'd think, as they are valued for their grace and their historical meaning.

I think there are also quite a few around which are used to train people in how to sail a ship.

Actually a barque had fewer lines and sails than a "full rigged" ship, although I agree if you don't know what everything is for it looks impossibly complicated.

If you have a look online you might be able to find one in your local area (if you live by the ocean) which can be seen or even sailed on by the public.

By croydon — On Dec 31, 2011

A barque looks to me like what I picture when I think of a massive pirate ship. Lots of sails in what looks like a complicated pattern (although I'm sure it makes sense to the sailors) and all of them in square shapes rather than long triangles like they always seem to use today.

They must have been difficult to sail, because of all those sails. You'd have to have them rigged up to turn quickly if there was a storm coming, or you needed to sail into a particular direction.

Still, they are beautiful ships and it's a shame there aren't more of them still on the ocean.

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