The Carrack

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Pablo Edronkin

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The carrack was a versatile type of ship also know as nau; it appeared during the XV as the result of the research and development work of the Portuguese, who at the time were leading the world in naval technology; first used by Portugal and Spain, its oceanic qualities made it soon a design of choice for European nations and so it became one of the most influential ship designs of all times.

The carrack was a sail ship carrying three or four masts. It was developed initially in Portugal due to a requirement for an ocean going ship larger than the caravel, which could be used in exploration, trade and military missions. Carracks were generally less maneuverable than caravels but offered more stability, onboard space and relative comfort for the crew and passengers. They had a large forecastle and aftcastle and the typical carrack hull was characteristically rounded, giving those ships an almost cartoon-like appearance. In many old drawings, paintings and engravings, carracks appear with curves that appear almost exaggerated when compared with other design types, but that was indeed their true shape (see Ancestors of the Skowronek Family in Portuguese Naval Expeditions).

Despite that the type was created mostly considering the limitations of the caravel, rather than a replacement, carracks should be understood as a complementary type of ship. In fact, caravels were not rendered obsolete as carracks appeared, but were given more specific functions such as exploration and mobile combat, taking advantage of their special qualities and letting the carracks for other tasks.

Carracks were also the direct forerunners of other types of ships such as the galleon. They were used for trading due to the good cargo volume that they offered, and were often armed; artillery at the time was very expensive but both Portugal and Spain made good use of it by conceptually converting some of their carracks into virtual floating fortresses capable of deciding any battle just by shooting their numerous cannons into any nearby target. The rigging used in carracks allowed for easier handling in oceanic voyages. These ships were frequently accompanied or escorted by armed caravels that were somewhat faster and provided mobile support.

The Santa Maria – the flagship of Columbus – was a carrack, while the Pinta and La Niña were caravels. The Portuguese used large carracks in considerable numbers their legendary India runs a well. Juan Sebastian Elcano also completed Magellan's trip around the world in the sole surviving ship of the five ship expedition, the Victoria, which was another carrack.

The type began evolving into the galleon around the middle of the XVI century, and despite their success, a hundred years later most carracks had disappeared.

A Portuguese carrack; Pablo Edronkin.

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