The caravel of the 15th and 16th centuries was a ship with a distinctive shape and admirable qualities. A gently sloping bow and single stern castle were prominent features of this vessel, and it carried a mainmast and a mizzen mast that were generally lateen-rigged. Although the caravel had already been in use for hundreds of years, it developed into an incredibly fast, easily maneuverable vessel by this time, which was noticed by eminent people. This extraordinary vessel gained fame with the Portuguese and Spanish voyages of discovery. As Inigo Arieta (who escorted Columbus out to sea in 1492), the Commander of the Biscay fleet put it, caravels were ‘’corredoras extremadas, buenas para descubrir tierras.  Columbus’s ships Niña and Pinta were supposedly caravels, and Columbus repeatedly praised his favorite ship, Niña, for her great speed, maneuverability, and safety. However, as is evident in the historical record, not all caravels were designed the same way, and many changes were made throughout the history and development of the ship. In essence, it is hard to define the ‘pure’ archetypal caravel.

The exact origin of the caravel is a matter of some debate. There are many possibilities and theories, but no conclusive evidence to sustain them. That the caravel was a fishing vessel in the 13th century is evident from Portuguese records from that period. However, by examining the etymology of the word ‘caravel’, it may be possible to trace the vessel’s origin to an earlier time and even another region. Elbl reports that in the early 13th century, the term ‘caravel’ was connected to a small ship related to Muslim Algarvian and Maghrebine models of lateen-rigged craft made to suit Atlantic sailing conditions. This qârib was well equipped to travel in shallow waters and was used as a fishing boat, coaster, and light warship. Although little is known about the technical details of this small Arab vessel, it had preferred features that allowed it to transform into progressively larger forms, much like the caravel.

For Columbus’s expedition in 1492, caravels were probably chosen as at least two of the accompanying vessels for the voyage. Santa María, however, is generally agreed to have been a nau. The Portuguese retained the lateen sails for their caravels, because they better suited their purposes on the African Coast. But by this time in Spain, the caravel had largely transformed from the caravela latina to the caravela redonda (19). It was now a three-masted vessel wielding a square sail on the mainmast and foremast, and a lateen sail on the mizzen. As in the case of Columbus’s Pinta, the caravel could often times be converted from a lateen-rigged vessel to a square-rigged vessel. This new sail arrangement provided the necessary adjustments to make the caravel what was commonly referred to as the best sailing vessel of its time. It continued to increase in size, but was still small enough to be easily maneuvered. As the ship became heavier, it also became beamier in order to increase the carrying capacity for each meter of length (20). The length to breadth ratios were now likely in the range of 4:1 to 3:1 (21). Its development over the centuries made it a viable option for exploration, trading, warfare, and piracy.

Due to its lighter weight and thus higher speed, the caravel was a boon to sailors. Early caravels generally carried two or three masts with lateen sails, while later types had four masts. Early caravels usually had an overall length of 15 to 30 m, displaced around 50 tons, a high length-to-beam ratio of around 3.5 to 1, and narrow ellipsoidal frame (unlike the circular frame of the nau), making them very fast and maneuverable but with somewhat low capacity. Towards the end of the 15th century, the caravel was occasionally modified by giving it the same rig as a carrack with a foresail, square mainsail and lateen mizzen, but not the carrack’s high forecastle or much of a sternpalace, which would make it un-weatherly. In this form it was sometimes known as caravela redonda (a bulging square sail is said to be round, redonda, in the Iberian tradition). It was in such ships that Christopher Columbus set out on his expedition in 1492; Santa Maria was a ~100 ton carrack (same as: nau) which served as the flagship, and Pinta and Niña were smaller caravels of around 15-20 m with a beam of 6 m and displacing around 60-75 tons.

In the first half of the 16th century, the Portuguese created a specialized fighting ship also called caravela redonda to act as an escort in Brazil and in the East Indies route. It had a foremast with square sails and three other masts with a lateen each, for a total of 4 masts. The hull was galleon-shaped, and some experts consider this vessel a forerunner of the fighting galleon. The Portuguese Man o’ War was named after this curious type of fighting ship which was in use until the 17th century.

Famous caravels

La Niña (Christopher Columbus expedition 1492)
La Pinta (Christopher Columbus expedition 1492)


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