The Caravel

In the article introducing Henry the Navigator, we left you with his ship carpenters at their drawing boards in Sagres trying to design a vessel that could negotiate the Volta do Mar [Twist of the Sea]. The old naus could sail with the wind, but they had a terrible time sailing against it, and that is what a ship had to do to return to Portugal from the southern Atlantic. We have already told you about the many ships that sailed south to explore the coast of Africa and never returned.

Records from 1441 reveal the first appearance of the new ship designed by Henry’s team. One of his captains Nuno Tristão arrived to the river marked by a rock “that looked like a galley-ship,” proudly commanding a caravel. Tristão had grown up with Henry in the Portuguese royal court, and was one of his best friends. He was high up in the chain of command for the Order of Christ. The experienced captain probably had a lot do to with the new ship’s sleek and elegant design.

Caravels were fast and maneuvered easily. Most had two masts – a main mast and a mizzen mast. The key to the new design was the triangular-shaped sails that allowed the ship to move against the wind at an angle, a maneuver called tacking. As these sails became popular on ships from Latin-speaking countries [i.e. Italy, Spain, and Portugal], they became known as lateen sails.

In contrast to galleys, caravels had superstructures built on the bow [front] and stern [back]. The superstructures were known as castles(1) because their raised decks and enclosed walls protected soldiers from flying arrows. Typically during a sea battle, one boat sidled up against another boat, then the soldiers jumped from boat to boat to fight. The extra decks gave the soldiers a height advantage. Castles built on the bow, or forward end of the ship, were known as forecastles, shortened to foc’scles. Castles built at the stern, or after end, were known as sterncastles, or aftcastles. Most caravels had two-story sterncastles and one-story forecastles.

Henry’s designers got rid of the side steering oar as well. They replaced it with a swiveling wooden rudder(2), at the stern(3).To steer the ship, the helmsman moved the rudder by pushing or pulling a long arm that extended from the top of the rudder called a tiller.


With the newly designed caravels, Henry’s captains could sail farther, faster, and more efficiently. Some of the caravels were very small, which allowed their captains to zip all around the Atlantic. Most importantly, they could return home, tacking back and forth against the wind!

Caravel Examples

A model of the caravel, Victoria, which was very large at eighty-five-tons, is on display at the Dighton Rock Museum near Fall River, Massachusetts. The Victoria was part of Ferdinand Magellan’(4)s fleet. After natives killed Magellan in the Philippines, one of his captains, a Spaniard named Juan Sebastian del Cano, sailed the Victoria back to Spain. The cross on her sails is the banner of the Order of São Tiago [Santiago]. The actual Victoria was 90 feet long. She only had one lateen sail at the stern.

This model was gifted to the museum by the King of Spain, Don Juan Carlos in 1977. [The display case was sponsored by the Banco Espírito Santo of Lisbon.](5)

A life-size replica of a caravel for tourists to visit in Lagos, Portugal.(5)

This close up of the stern of the caravel shows the rudder.(5)

A model of a caravel on display in the Lagos Fortress Museum in Portugal.(5)

Notes

  1. The term castle came from the Latin word Castellum which meant fort. And fort came from fortify, which meant to make stronger.
  2. Rudder came from the German/Dutch word ruder, which referred to rowing, oar, or paddle.
  3. Stern probably came from the Old Norse word stjórn, which meant steering.
  4. His name in Portuguese is Fernão de Magalhãe.
  5. All photographs of caravels ©2015 Mary Ames Mitchell. All rights reserved.

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