By the 21st century, "tall ship" is often used generically for large, classic, sailing vessels, but is also a technically defined term by Sail Training International. The definitions are subject to various technicalities, but by 2011 there are only two size classes, class A is square-rigged vessels and all other vessels over 40 m LOA, and classes B/C/D are 9.14 m to under 40 m LOA. Participating vessels are manned by a largely cadet or trainee crew who are partaking in sail training, 50 percent of which must be aged between 15–25 years of age and who do not need any previous experience. Thus, tall ship does not describe a specific type of sailing vessel, but rather a monohull sailing vessel of at least 9.4 metres (30 ft) that is conducting sail training and education under sail voyages. Participating ships range from yachts to the large square-rigged sail training ships run by charities, schools and navies of many countries.

After World War II, tall ships were a dying breed, having lost out to steam-powered ships several decades before. It was a retired solicitor from London, Bernard Morgan, who first dreamed up the idea of bringing young cadets and seamen under training together from around the world to compete in a friendly competition. The Portuguese Ambassador to the UK, Dr Pedro Theotonio Pereira was a huge supporter of this original idea, and believed such a race would bring together the youth of the world's seafaring peoples. These two figures started discussions in 1953 and three years later they saw their vision become a reality. The first Tall Ships' race was held in 1956. It was a race of 20 of the world's remaining large sailing ships. The race was from Torquay, Devon to Lisbon, and was meant to be a last farewell to the era of the great sailing ships. Public interest was so intense, however, that race organisers founded the Sail Training International association to direct the planning of future events. Since then Tall Ships' Races have occurred annually in various parts of the world, with millions of spectators. Today, the race attracts more than a hundred ships, among these some of the largest sailing ships in existence, like the Portuguese Sagres. The 50th Anniversary Tall Ships' Races took place during July and August, 2006, and was started by the patron, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who also started the first race in 1956.


2017: Halmstad (Sweden) - Kotka (Finland) - Turku (Finland) - Klaipėda (Lithuania) - Szczecin (Poland)
2016: Antwerp (Belgium) - Lisbon (Portugal) - Cádiz (Spain) - A Coruña (Spain) - Blyth (United Kingdom)
2015: Belfast (United Kingdom) - Ålesund (Norway) - Kristiansand (Norway) - Aalborg (Denmark)
2014: Harlingen (Netherlands) - Fredrikstad (Norway) - Bergen (Norway) - Esbjerg (Denmark)
2013: Aarhus (Denmark) - Helsinki (Finland) - Riga (Latvia) - Szczecin (Poland)
2012: Saint-Malo (France) – Lisbon (Portugal) – Cádiz (Spain) – A Coruña – Dublin (Ireland)
2011: Waterford (Ireland) – Greenock (Scotland) – Lerwick (Shetland) – Stavanger (Norway) – Halmstad (Sweden)
2010: Antwerp (Belgium) – Aalborg (Denmark) – Kristiansand (Norway) – Hartlepool (United Kingdom)
2009: Trans-Atlantic: Vigo (Spain) - Tenerife (Canary Islands) - Bermuda - Charleston (United States) - Boston (United States) - Halifax (Canada) - Belfast (United Kingdom)
2009: Baltic: Gdynia (Poland) - St Petersburg (Russia) - Turku (Finland) - Klaipėda (Lithuania)
2008: Liverpool (United Kingdom) - Måløy (Norway) - Bergen (Norway) - Den Helder (Netherlands)
2007: Baltic: Aarhus (Denmark) - Kotka (Finland) - Stockholm (Sweden) - Szczecin (Poland)
2007: Mediterranean: Barcelona (Spain) - Genoa (Italy) - Toulon (France) - Alicante (Spain)
2006: Saint Malo (France) - Lisbon (Portugal) - Cádiz (Spain) - A Coruña (Spain) - Antwerp (Belgium)
2005: Waterford (Ireland) - Cherbourg-Octeville (France) - Newcastle-Gateshead (United Kingdom) - Fredrikstad (Norway) - Torbay (United Kingdom) - Santander (Spain)
2004: Antwerp (Belgium) - Aalborg (Denmark) - Stavanger (Norway) - Cuxhaven (Germany)
2003: Gdynia (Poland) - Turku (Finland) - Riga (Latvia) - Travemünde (Germany)
2002: Alicante (Spain) - Málaga (Spain) - A Coruña (Spain) - Santander (Spain) - Portsmouth (United Kingdom)
2001: Antwerp (Belgium) - Ålesund (Norway) - Bergen (Norway) - Esbjerg (Denmark)
2000: Trans-Atlantic: Southampton (United Kingdom) - Cádiz (Spain) - Genoa (Italy) - Cádiz (Spain) - Bermuda (Bermuda) - Boston (United States) - Halifax (Canada) - Amsterdam (Netherlands)
1999: St Malo (France) - Greenock (United Kingdom) - Lerwick (United Kingdom) - Aalborg (Denmark)
1998: Falmouth (United Kingdom) - Lisbon (Portugal) - Vigo (Spain) - Dublin (Ireland)[4]
1997: Aberdeen (United Kingdom) - Trondheim (Norway) - Stavanger (Norway) - Gothenburg (Sweden)
1996: St Petersburg (Russia) - Kotka (Finland) - Turku (Finland) - Copenhagen (Denmark)