Tall Ships America

A Brief History of
Tall Ships America

Barclay Warburton IIITall Ships America was founded in 1973 as the American Sail Training Association (ASTA). In the summer of 1972 Barclay Warburton III, of Newport, Rhode Island, his two sons, andseveral friends, sailed his brigantine Black Pearl across the Atlantic to participate in a tall ships race from Cowes on the south coast of England to Malmo in Sweden, organized by what was then known as The Sail Training Association.  He was so inspired by the enthusiasm and spirit he saw in that international gathering of tall ships and young people that he set out to create a similar organization in order to bring the same kind of spirit to the United States, and through his efforts the American Sail Training Association was founded the following year.  ASTA soon became the first national association to formally affiliate with what eventually became known as the International Sail Training Association.

The Tall Ships Races in which the Black Pearl took part had first been held in 1956, when a London solicitor, Bernard Morgan, had the idea of bringing what he imagined to be the last of the world’s great square-riggers together for a race as a sort of last hurrah— a farewell salute—for the Great Age of Sail. A committee was formed, and with the support and assistance of the Portuguese Ambassador in London, a race was organized from Torbay, on England’s Cornish coast, to Lisbon. Five square-rigged schoolships entered the race: Denmark’s Danmark, Norway’s Christian Radich and Sorlandet, Belgium’s Mercator, and Portugal’s first Sagres.

The event proved to be anything but a funeral procession, however, and it has since grown into an annual series that would astonish its original organizers. Today, hundreds of tall ships from around the world come together annually for friendly competition in international and regional Tall Ships Races organized by Sail Training International in Europe and national affiliates such as ASTA. These races, along with waterfront festivals in designated start and finish ports, bring together the ships and young people of most European countries, Russia and the former Soviet states, the Americas, and the Pacific Rim. The key elements uniting these events are an emphasis on youth—from the beginning, tall ship racing rules have required that not less than half those onboard participating vessels be between 15 and 25 years of age—and a formula for rating participating vessels which allows vessels ranging in size from the largest square-riggers down to yachts of 30 or more feet in length.

The American Sail Training Association’s efforts in its first decade were primarily focused on organizing tall ships races on the European model, but from the mid-1980’s to the mid-1990’s it worked on a multitude of activities broadly aimed at promoting sail training and supporting education under sail in North America.  Thus at the beginning of the 21st century, the American Sail Training Association has evolved into an organizer of tall ships races, a strong industry association for the growing numbers of vessels involved in providing opportunities for people of all ages to take part in deep water sailing experiences vessel and a public charity which makes sail training more available and affordable for young people. 

With an organizational membership of over 250 vessels, the American Sail Training Association serves as a forum for information exchange, professional development, and program standards.  Through such initiatives as the Council of Educational Ship Owners, which worked successfully for the passage of the Sailing school Vessels Act of 1982 and the Sailing School Vessels Council, founded the following year, ASTA has continued to work with the US Coast Guard and other agencies to create and maintain a friendly regulatory climate for the development of sail training.

Safety at sea has been an enduring emphasis, and in conjunction with the Australian bicentennial gathering of tall ships in Sydney in 1988, a group of ASTA members organized the first international discussion on safety standards and practices, and equipment for sail training programs.  Since 1992, ASTA has organized a bi-annual Safety Forum, which regularly draws professional sail trainers from around the world.  Also in the 1980s, ASTA developed the concept of the Sail Training Rally; a competition among crews both at sea and ashore, which provides trainees with an opportunity to demonstrate their seamanship skills in a friendly but competitive format. During shore side events, the general public can observe the sort of teamwork and maritime skills that are learned on board sail training vessels at sea.

Over the years, the American Sail Training Association has undertaken many other projects to meet the needs of a rapidly growing sail training community. These include a variety of publications including SAIL TALL SHIPS! A Directory of Sail Training and Adventure at Sea, an Annual Conference on Sail Training which attracts international interest and participation, a Billet Bank to assist vessels in finding qualified crewmembers, and vice versa, a growing program of scholarships and grants to support trainees, vessels, and professional crew, and a constantly expanding  Website.  In 2001, building on the spectacular success of Tall Ships® 2000, ASTA launched its most ambitious project to date— the TALL SHIPS CHALLENGE® Series, an annual series of tall ships races and maritime port festivals that informs the general public about tall ships, our maritime heritage and the incredible power of sail training to change lives.


Tall Ships America • 221 3rd St., Bldg. 2, Ste. 101• Newport, RI 02840 USA • (401) 846-1775 • asta@tallshipsamerica.org