In the second century BC, Cato the Elder showed the Roman Senate a fig that had been picked in Carthage, in North Africa, just three days earlier. He used the fruit to make a military point, but he could equally well have been demonstrating the efficiency of the Roman mercantile marine.

The Eternal City was kept well fed and provisioned with the bounty from her Mediterranean vassals, through a fleet of wooden ships, plying from all points at speeds which would be impressive to sailors today.

It’s instructive, and perhaps a little humbling, to note that even in 2014 the biggest cargo ship currently in service, the Mary Maersk, at 50 meters wide and 396 meters long, crosses the oceans at a speed of 17.8 knots (kn), which is only two or three times faster than Roman merchantmen could achieve.

From Ostia to Africa in 2 days

The literature is full of their exploits. Pliny records a record crossing from Ostia to Africa in just two days. So to all of Rome’s other impressive achievements we should add its command of the seas, in terms of both its military and commercial might.

But we must step back a long way for evidence of the very first sailing boat. It was probably developed by the Egyptians around 3100 BC, made from bundles of papyrus reeds lashed together, with simple square sails of papyrus to catch the wind. These Egyptian boats may have started to take to the open sea around 2,700 BC, steered with a long oar.

The first seagoing boat

It’s still impossible to say which was the first seagoing boat that did more than potter about from bay to bay, the first to venture far over open water.

Possible candidates include Bronze Age vessels such as the Ferriby Boats, discovered on the shores of the Humber Estuary in the C20th. Some experts believe they may have been capable of sailing to the Continent. (The Dover Bronze Age boat is another candidate.)

Support for that theory came when a replica Bronze Age boat was built by a team from Exeter University and the Maritime Museum. It featured in the recent BBC2 documentary Operation Stonehenge: What Lies Beneath, when it was seen being rowed comfortably out into the Channel.

The wooden boats from the Mediterranean region

Wooden boats, powered by oarsmen and the wind, must have developed in many places around the world in some form. But nowhere is the archaeological evidence of the power and might of the fighting ship stronger than in the Mediterranean region.

A dig at the ship sheds of Athens, at the harbour of Zea in Piraeus, show the statistics of the Athenian trireme. This formidable war machine was about 30 m long. 170 oarsmen could propel the trireme at a sustained speed of 6 kn (6.9 mph). Its flat keel and low weight allowed it to be beached easily.

Unfit volunteers managed to get the 21st century reconstruction Olympias up to speeds of 8 kn, which suggests expert Ancient Greek crews could easily attain higher speeds. On a good day, with oarsmen rowing for 6–8 hours, a trireme might make 100 kilometres. Thucydides mentions a trireme travelling 300 kilometres in one day.

The Roman ships

Roman ships, powered by both oars and sail, were not so different in terms of their speed and size. Detailed accounts pop up in the literature, and tell of some epic, long-distance journeys. The 818 nautical miles between Cimmerian Bosporus, at the head of the Black Sea, and Rhodes in nine and a half days, at a speed of 3.7 kn, for example. Or Puteoli, the great emporium for the Alexandrian grain ships, to Alexandria, 830 miles in six days at 5.8 kn. Or Ostia to Gibraltar, 935 nautical miles in seven days at 5.6 kn.

The size of Roman ships was impressive. On the low end, ships designed for the grain trade might carry 75 tons. Some of the bigger grain vessels carried as much as 365 tons. These were the workhorses of the fleet, plying regular routes from North Africa and Gaul France) with loads of wheat or barley. Then there were the bigger ships, loaded with perhaps 3000 amphorae of olive oil. Their size and cargo has been confirmed by the many wrecks found in shallow waters. One ship that floundered off Gaul in the C1st BC, was 130 feet long with an estimated capacity of 440 tons. Roman 10,000-amphorae carriers, ladened with 550 tons, were the largest ships afloat.

One of the biggest of all Roman monsters was Caligula’s Giant Ship. Remains found during the excavation for Rome’s international airport suggest a length of perhaps 104 metres (341 ft) and a beam of about 20.3 m (66 ft). It was 6 decks high, displacing around 7400 tons, and carrying a crew of 700-800.

Some of these Roman vessels remained the largest thing on the Mediterranean for many centuries, until they were overtaken by the bigger vessels in the Middle Ages.

The Vikings’ vessels

It was the Vikings who assumed the mantle of the world’s master mariners. They were able to conquer land as well as water with their light, graceful and manoeuvrable vessels, which they carried over small necks of dry land to get to the sea beyond.

With their shallow draft, Viking ships could reach speeds of between 5–10 kn. The top speed of a longship under favorable conditions was around 15 kn. One replica longship covered 223 nautical miles (413 km) in a single day.

The medieval ships

We are familiar with the great voyages of discovery of Christopher Columbus, beginning in 1492–93, and Vasco da Gama, who carried out two expeditions from 1497. However Columbus’s flagship La Santa María de la Inmaculada Concepción was a mere 17.7 m long, while Vasco’s flagship, the São Gabriel , was only 25.7 m. Compare them to the fleet of somebody we hear much less about, the much earlier Chinese Explorer Zheng He, in the years 1405-1433.

According to some accounts, the great treasure ships of Zheng’s armada had nine masts on 400 foot (122m) decks. They were candidates for the largest wooden ships ever built. By 1433 they reached Africa’s Swahili coast, with a side trip to Mecca.

In medieval times, the speed of a ship was strictly governed by its dimensions. It could rarely if ever exceed its hull speed. In knots that came to 1.34 times the square root of the vessel’s waterline length in feet. So the hull speed of a vessel 50 feet long would be 9.34 kn; a waterline length of 100 feet would give her a hull speed of 13.5 kn.

Generally, however, sailing vessels would keep to a top speed of around 5-8 kn. Some went faster, depending on how they were built and the setting of the sails and the quality of the crew.

The list of the longest wooden ships includes such behemoths as Henry V’s flagship Grace Dieu, completed in 1418, measuring 66.4 metres (218 ft) long, with a weight of between 1,400 and 2,750 tons.

The post-medieval ships

Over the next 300 years vessels did not become vastly bigger. At 62.2 m (204.0 ft) the SS Constitution, built in 1797, is the oldest wooden ship still afloat. Bigger still was the 69 m (226 ft) HMS Victory, built in 1765. Today, the oldest naval ship still in commission, she sits proudly in dry dock in Portsmouth.

The apogee of the sailing ship was the tea clipper Cutty Sark, famous for the prodigious speeds it reached on its runs north. Its maximum recorded speed was 17.5 kn (20.1 mph). Over 24 hours her greatest recorded distance was 363 kn (418 mi).

The 19th century ships

Vessels grew larger and faster, but by small increments. The big technological breakthrough came in the 19th century, with the revolutionary and disruptive technology of steam propulsion. By 1815 steamships were crossing the English Channel. The Atlantic crossing time was cut from several weeks to the 19 day crossing made in 1838 by the steam ship Sirius. But it took Charles Parsons’ invention of the steam turbine in 1884 to finally kill the 4000 year domination of the sail, as the main means for moving fighting and trading ships on water.

The sight of Parsons’ steam powered yacht Turbinia moving at 34 kn before Queen Victoria at her Diamond Jubilee Fleet Review of Portsmouth in 1897 must have been remarkable.

In the 20th century, the age of all-out global conflict, it was natural that the biggest, fastest and most armoured vessels would-be military ships. Fastest of all were the German Scharnhorst-class battleships, capable of 32 kn. Only slightly beaten for speed was HMS Vanguard (30 kn), a British battleship commissioned just after the Second World War. She was the fastest and last of the Royal Navy’s battleships.

The impact of passenger aircraft industry

Until the deployment of jet powered passenger aircraft in the 1950s, speed, and size still mattered for passenger liners, particularly on the trans-Atlantic route where some of the most graceful vessels afloat competed for the Blue Riband speed record. It is still held by the SS United States.

But that age is past and today cruise liners have no need to rush. The world’s fastest ocean liner today is the Queen Mary 2, launched by the Queen in 2004, at 26 kn.

Where speed does matter over water is on the short, crowded crossings of the world. So the fastest passenger ship anywhere today is the 58 knot, 1516 ton Francisco, named after Pope Francis, which has just been built to carry 1,000 passengers and 150 cars the 140 miles across the River Plate between between Buenos Aires and Montevideo.

The world’s largest ship remains the Mary Maersk, with room for 18,000 shipping containers. But as cargo vessels become bigger and ever more impersonal, there’s an interesting footnote. The age of the massive sailing ship is not quite over. Master craftsmen working in Turkish boatyards have in recent years been turning out mega trophy yachts for Russian and Ukrainian buyers. One of the latest vessels, the 63.5m Mikhail S. Vorontsov, was completed in 2013. However, with the recent nosedive in the Ukrainian economy, this niche form of boat building may have come to an end, at least for the time being.