The Caravel

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Pablo Edronkin

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The Caravel was arguably the first efficient, truly oceanic ship in history; there have been some remarkable voyages don in other types of vessels through history before the advent of the caravel, like the viking voyages to Greenland and North America, and the trip around Africa made by some Phoenicians on the service of an Egyptian Pharaoh, but the caravel had, nevertheless a more significant impact because it was the ship that enabled Europeans to expand their empires overseas, changing the world's geopolitical and cultural map.

The caravel probably evolved from the dhouws and fishing boats used during the middle ages; it was a Portuguese invention made in Sagres under the auspices of Henry the Navigator (see Henry the Navigator). From the dhow, the caravel inherited its triangular sails. These were essential for allowing the ship without the need for rowing. Other ships of the time, which used only one or two square sails, often required rowing from their sailors in order to maneuver.

Early and lighter caravels were also prepared for rowing, but just for emergencies; this was probably due to the fact that for millenia, ships like galleys had moved and maneuvered using human force and for tradition's sake and security concerns, sailors and captains were still not ready to abandon common, proven practices. The problem with rowing was that ships that moved using such a method could never become truly ocean going.

Other ships of the time, like the dhows, could be used in open waters; nevertheless, they were more primitive that the caravel and their owners did not have the level of ambition and competitiveness of the Europeans. That led to substantial differences over time: While the dhows, for example, were used by Muslim nations to expand in the Indian Ocean, in a relatively friendly and peaceful environment, the basic design of that kind of ship remained unchanged. They were used for trade and political expansion, but had none of the characteristics of the caravel and later Western ship types, which kept being improved.

The ships used by Western nations could be employed to open trade whether peacefully or not, and nations that tried to confront the Europeans using dhows, galleys and other kinds of ships simply proved no match for the armadas equipped with better technology that included the sails that we mentioned, navigation instruments and high quality naval artillery – which often was costlier than the ships that carried the cannons.

In Spain the type was developed even further until eventually, it was supplanted by more technologically advanced and efficient designs like the galleon. The most famous caravels in history are those used by Columbus during his voyages across the ocean, but thanks to these ships and the carracks, the Portuguese managed some decades earlier to sail around Africa and reach their very profitable destinations in India and the Far East. These ships were used extensively for exploration, warfare and commerce.

Nevertheless, the caravel did not supplant other vessel types completely; galleys were used in the battle of Lepanto, in 1571, and the Spanish Armada still had some in its inventory in the XVIII century. But galleys had many disadvantages, compared to sail ships, especially for oceanic and long distance missions; one of the most important was that galleys required a considerably larger crew than the caravels and thus, space inside the hull was occupied by more men who required more provisions.

Hence, it was impossible to travel as far with a galley that a caravel without constructing a galley far larger and costlier; this would also mean that the galley would be a far heavier ship, more difficult to move and maneuver. Another concern was that at the time, crews suffered a high number of casualties, both in wartime and during peace. In some cases, half the crew of a ship could be lost after a while. In a galley there was almost no room for losses, since most members of the crew were rowers, and these were needed to actually move the ship. In a caravel, losses were not so critical.

On the other hand, battles between caravels, galleons and pataches on one side, and galleys on the other, proved very revealing: Even far larger squadrons of galleys could not defeat small fleets of the more modern, wind-powered ships; one caravel or galleon could successfully fight against ten galleys at the same time.

Not surprisingly and despite that galleys continued to be built and used, caravels and other types like carracks, galleons and frigates slowly began displacing the galley. Nevertheless, as late as 1790, the Swedes fought against and defeated the Russians at the second battle of Svensksund, in the Gulf of Finland, using galleys and oared ships. By the XIX century, the only galleys left were found in places like the Baltic, performing only minor duties.

Caravels were ships that required a lot of skill from their officers and crew; there were essentially three types: those with triangular or lateen sails, those with square sails, and those that combined both types of sails since each one had its advantages and disadvantages. Lateen sails provide very good maneuverability and allow for taking advantage of wind coming from many different directions; on the other hand, square sails make a more efficient use of tail winds.

Caravels weighted generally less than a hundred and fifty tonnes – later galleons and carracks could reach 900 tonnes in some cases – with a overall length of less than 30 metres. Caravels were tall and generally had two or three masts; later designs, like the “caravela redonda” had four masts. They were often armed and in the case of armadas or convoys that included cargo ships, caravels were assigned combat duties.

They were used since the beginning of the XV century, and references to caravels in use existed even in the XVIII century but very probably, by then what was know as a caravel was very different from what Henry the Navigator and his explorers had in mind.

A Portuguese caravel visiting Ascension Is. Pablo Edronkin.

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