The Caravels

The Diccionario de la Real Academia de la Lengua Española defines the caravel as a vessel 'very swift, long and narrow, with only one deck, a beak at the prow and a flat poop, with three masts for lateen sails and some with yards for square sails on the main and foremasts'.

According to the Encyclopedia of Ships and Seafaring edited by Peter Kemp (Stanford Maritime Press), caravels became the preferred ships of explorers of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, mainly because they were small, roomy, easy to handle and drew so little water that they could approach unknown shores with little danger of running aground.

The caravel was first employed by the Portuguese around 1440 on voyages of discovery to the western African coasts, but the oldest caravels were those used by Portuguese fishermen from the middle of the thirteenth century. The name 'caravel' had been given to certain vessels which appeared in that century in documents such as the Foral of Vilanova de Gaia (1255), and notes in Os descovrimentos Portugueses defined them as ships with high sides, lateen rigged and fitted with one, two, three or even four masts. Their capacity was about 100 tons. In the fifteenth century they reached 150, and up to 180 tons.

Lopez de Mendoza provided documentary evidence of the history and development of the caravel up to the beginning of the sixteenth century. The characteristic vessel which emerges from his work is a swift ship of less than 200 tons, with one, two, three or even four masts, exclusively lateen rigged. Nevertheless, extant contemporary documents reveal many differences in vessels falling within the definition of the type. Quirino da Fonseca, for example, records no fewer than twenty-four different types of bow, all taken from nautical charts, manuscript illustrations and other documents, in his A Caravela Portuguesa.

Certain characteristic features can, however, be identified. Caravels all had a continuous main deck and no forecastle, but rather a small covered space at the prow known as the tilla. The hull was relatively narrow, the transom square, and the rudder hung on the sternpost, with the tiller entering the space under the quarterdeck through an opening known as the limera. The gunwales were not always bulwarks; sometimes they consisted simply of stanchions with a handrail. Some of the larger caravels had a cabin or chupeta at the quarterdeck, with a poop deck or toldilla above. The Guillén reconstruction of the Santa Maria represents a typical armed caravel, known as a carabela de armada, distinguished by a top on the mainmast.

The simplicity of these ships as fishing vessels is evident from drawings of single-masted caravels which accompany the signatures of Spanish fishermen in documents kept in the Archivo de Indias in Seville.

The lateen rig was dominant for caravels in the Mediterranean. It is recorded that King Joao II of Portugal promoted the belief that strong currents and contrary winds impeded the return of square sailed ships from the west coast of Africa, and that only lateen rigged caravels, then an exclusive Portuguese type, would be able to trade with the newly explored lands. His confidence in a secure Portuguese monopoly was soon shaken, however. Caravels operating beyond the Mediterranean were increasingly modified to carry a square sail on the foremast and the mainmast, with a spritsail and a lateen mizzen, or a mixed rig adapted to the prevailing winds.

It may be that the square rig for caravels originated in Spain, where square-rigged versions of the vessel appeared in the second quarter of the fifteenth century, and where they survived until the beginning of the sixteenth. As in the case of the Niña and Pinta, lateen-rigged caravels were frequently converted to square rig, even by the Portuguese, as the advantages of square sails became apparent.

The general arrangement of Portuguese and Spanish lateen-rigged caravels, as well as those with square sails and a lateen mizzen, is shown in illustrations on the chart of Juan de la Cosa (circa 1500). Vessels illustrated include three Portuguese caravels of two and three masts off the Cape of Good Hope, several lateen-rigged versions off the coasts of Ethiopia and Arabia, and two Spanish caravels (one with a top), both lateen rigged.

Further fine illustrations of lateen-rigged caravels appear in the chart of Pedro Reynel (dating from 1516) now in the Bibliotheque National in Paris.

Early Portuguese records mentioning caravels frequently also refer to other ship types, including barcas, barineis, ureas and fustas; none of these


Hull maximum length Keel length Breadth Depth

Light displacement Load displacement Mainmast height upon deck Foremast height upon forecastle Mizzen mast height upon quarterdeck Mainsail area Foresail area Mizzen sail area

48.6 tons 100.3 tons

115.7sq m 40.6sq m 22.5sq m


70ft 2'/2in 51ft

20ft 7in

52ft 6in 32ft 1 in

26ft 8V?in 1245.8sq ft 437.2sq ft 243sq ft

6ft 6in types survives in the chronicles of the voyages of discovery. Only the caravel, clearly an exceptional vessel, ensured its place in history as a recognisable ship type.

The Niña was owned by Juan Niño of Moguer (in Huelva, southern Spain), who took part in the first voyage as her master, under the captain Vicente Yáñez Pinzón of Palos. Her original name was Sa?ita Clara> and the name Niña ('Little Girl') was an allusion to her owner's surname. She was built in Moguer, on the banks of the Rio Tinto, where Spanish shipwrights competed in skill with the Portuguese of the nearby Algarve.

Columbus himself had a great fondness for the Niña, and sailed some 25,000 miles in her. He eventually became her half-owner, and captained the ship himself on the second voyage.

The last record of the Niña relates to a voyage she made to the so-called Coast of Pearls (modern Venezuela) in 1501. This coast had been explored by Juan de la Cosa (the Santa Maria's owner and master on Columbus's first voyage) and Alonso de Hojeda in 1499. The ship's part in this enterprise has been investigated by Alice Gould, to whom is due the credit for the most reliable study of Columbus's crews.

The Pinta belonged to Christóbal Quintero of Palos, who also accompanied his ship on Columbus's first voyage. Her captain was Martin Alonso Pinzón of Palos, and her master his cousin Francisco Martin Pinzón.

In his reconstruction of the caravels which accompanied Columbus, Martinez-Hidalgo was careful to take into account the lines and characteristics of related ship types which are more fully documented. The lines of the xebecs on display in the Museu Maritim at Barcelona were particularly informative, given that the xebec and the caravel are closely related vessels. Notable features in common are the relation between length and breadth, the run of the planking at the bow and the stern and the extraordinary ability of both types to sail close to the wind. Similarly, the main frame and stern of the baghala and the sambuk, both of which are similar to the later caravels, were taken into consideration. It was also necessary to take note of the illustrations of two-masted lateen caravels on the chart of Juan de la Cosa, which show a square tuck at the stern with diagonal planking.

Martinez-Hidalgo used the method described in the Livro Náutico, a unique Portuguese source for the study of caravels from somewhat later than Columbus's time, for calculating the dimensions of the reconstructions from the tonnage of the original Niña and Pinta. Miguel de Cuneo, who returned from Cuba in 1494, recorded the tonnage of the Niña as about 60 tons; other data in the Recolta Colombina suggest that she embarked some 51 tons of cargo and supplies. The hold capacity of the somewhat


Hull maximum length


74ft 7in

Keel length


52ft 9!/?in



21ft 7in



7ft 21/2in

Light displacement

51.6 tons

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