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Portuguese caravel. This was the standard model used by the Portuguese in their voyages of exploration. It could accommodate about 20 sailors.[1]

A caravel is a small, highly maneuverable sailing ship developed in the 15th century by the Portuguese to explore along the West African coast and into the Atlantic Ocean. The lateen sails gave her speed and the capacity for sailing to windward (beating). Caravels were much used by the Portuguese and Spanish for the oceanic exploration voyages during the 16th and 17th centuries in age of discovery.



Initially, up to the 15th century, Europeans were limited to coastal cabotage navigation using the barge (barca) or the balinger (barinel), ancient cargo vessels used in the Mediterranean of around 50 to 200 tons. These boats were fragile, with only one mast with a fixed quadrangular sail that could not overcome the navigational difficulties of Southward oceanic exploration, as the strong winds, shoals and strong ocean currents easily overwhelmed their abilities.

The caravel was developed based on existing fishing boats under the sponsorship of Prince Henry the Navigator and soon became the preferred vessel for Portuguese explorers. Its name may derive from an earlier Arab boat known as the qārib.[2] They were agile and easier to navigate, with a tonnage of 50 to 160 tons and 1 to 3 masts, with lateen triangular sails allowing beating.

Being smaller, the caravel could sail upriver in shallow coastal waters. With the lateen sails attached, it could go fast over shallow water and take deep wind, while with the square Atlantic-type sails attached, it was very fast. Its economy, speed, agility, and power made it esteemed as the best sailing vessel of its time. The limited capacity for cargo and crew were their main drawbacks, but did not hinder its success.

The exploration done with caravels made possible the spice trade of the Portuguese and the Spanish. However, for the trade itself, the caravel was later replaced by the larger nau which was more profitable for trading.

Caravela Latina /Lateen-rigged Caravel
Caravela Redonda /Square-rigged Caravel


The caravel generally carried two or three masts with lateen sails, while later types had four masts. Early caravels usually had two masts, a weight of around 50 tons, an overall length of 20 to 30 m, a high length-to-beam ratio of around 3.5:1, 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 sterncastle, which would make it unweatherly. 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 small carrack which served as the flagship, and Pinta and Niña were slightly larger caravels of around 30 m with a beam of 6 m and weighing about 100 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 18th century.


  1. ^ Notice in the Musée de la Marine.
  2. ^ John M. Hobson (2004), [1], p. 141, Cambridge University Press

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

CARAVEL, or Carvel (from the Gr. Kapa(30s, a light ship, through the Ital. carabella and the Span. casabas), a name applied at different times and in different countries to ships of very varying appearance and build, as in Turkey to a ship of war, and in France to a small boat used in the herring fishery. In the 15th and 16th centuries, caravels were much used by the Portuguese and Spanish for long voyages. They were roundish ships, with a double tower at the stern, and a single one in the bows, and were galley rigged. Two out of the three vessels in which Columbus sailed on his voyage of discovery to America were "caravels." Carvel, the older English form, is now used only in the term "Carvel-built," for a boat in which the planking is flush with the edges laid side to side, in distinction from "clinker-built," where the edges overlap.

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