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Model of a Portuguese caravel, found in the Musée national de la Marine

The caravel (Portuguese: caravela, IPA: [kɐɾɐˈvɛlɐ]) is a small maneuverable sailing ship that uses both lateen and square sails and was known for its agility and speed and its capacity for sailing windward (beating). Caravels were used by the Portuguese and Spanish for the voyages of exploration during the 15th and 16th centuries, in the Age of Discovery.


The English name caravel derives from the Portuguese caravela, which in turn may derive from the Latin: carabus or the Greek: κάραβος perhaps indicating some continuity of its carvel build through the ages.[1]

What is believed to be the most accurate depiction of a lateen caravel, featured in the 16th century Retábulo de Santa Auta, now at the National Museum of Ancient Art, in Lisbon
A replica of the caravel Boa Esperança in the city of Lagos, Portugal


The long development of the caravel was probably influenced by various Mediterranean tending or coastal craft. Among these influences might have been the boats known as qârib, that were introduced to the Islamic controlled parts of Iberia Al-Andalus from the Maghreb.[2]

The earliest caravels appeared in the thirteenth century along the coasts of Galicia and Portugal as single-masted fishing vessels.[3] They were small, lightly built vessels of up to 20 tons at most, carrying, in one example, a crew of five men. Evidence suggests that these were open boats. They carried a single-masted, triangular lateen sail rig. By the fourteenth century, their size had increased and their use had spread; for instance, there is mention, in 1307, of larger caravels of up to 30 tons in Biscay. Caravels were a common type of vessel in the coastal waters of the Iberian Peninsula in the fifteenth century.[4]

The caravel was the preferred vessel of Portuguese explorers like Diogo Cão, Bartolomeu Dias, Gaspar, and Miguel Corte-Real, and was also used by Spanish expeditions like those of Christopher Columbus. They were agile and easier to navigate than the barca and barinel, with a tonnage of 50 to 160 tons and 1 to 3 masts. Being smaller and having a shallow keel, the caravel was suited for sailing shallow coastal waters and up rivers. With the Mediterranean-type lateen sails attached it was highly maneuverable in shallow waters, while with the square Atlantic-type sails attached it was very fast when crossing the open sea. Its economy, speed, and agility made it esteemed as the best sailing vessel of its time. Its main drawback was its limited capacity for cargo and crew but this did not hinder its success.

The exploration done with caravels made the spice trade of the Portuguese and the Spanish possible. However, for the trade itself, the caravel was soon replaced by the larger carrack (nau), which could carry larger, more profitable cargoes. The caravel was one of the pinnacle ships in Iberian ship development from 1400 to 1600.


The earliest caravels in the thirteenth century were small and are believed to have been open, carrying one mast with lateen sails, while later types were larger and had two or three masts and decks. Caravels such as the caravela tilhlda of the 15th century had an average length of between 12 and 18 m (39 and 59 ft), an average capacity of 50 to 60 tons,[5] a high length-to-beam ratio of around 3.5 to 1, and narrow ellipsoidal frame (unlike the circular frame of the nau), making them very fast and maneuverable but with a limited cargo capacity. It was in such ships that Christopher Columbus set out on his expedition in 1492; while the Santa María was a small carrack of about 150 tons and served as the flagship, the Pinta and Niña were caravels of around 15–20 m with a beam of 6 m and a displacement of around 60–75 tons.

Square-rigged caravel[edit]

A typical square-rigged caravel (Livro das Armadas)

Towards the end of the 15th century, the Portuguese developed a larger version of the caravel, bearing a forecastle and sterncastle – though not as high as those of a carrack, which would have made it unweatherly – but most distinguishable for its square-rigged foremast, and three other masts bearing lateen rig. In this form it was referred to in Portuguese as a "round caravel" (caravela redonda) as in Iberian tradition, a bulging square sail is said to be round.

It was employed in coast-guard fleets near the Strait of Gibraltar and as an armed escort for merchant ships between Portugal and Brazil and in the Cape Route. Some consider this a forerunner of the fighting galleon and it remained in use until the 17th century.

Lisbon, 1572. Galleon (center) surrounded by carracks, galleys, round caravels, and caravels (lateen)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sleeswyk, André W. (1998). "Carvel-planking and Carvel Ships in the North of Europe". Archaeonautica. 14: 223–228 (224f.). doi:10.3406/nauti.1998.1208. Archived from the original on 24 September 2015. Retrieved 8 January 2014.
  2. ^ Elbl, Martin Malcolm (1985). "The Portuguese Caravel and European Shipbuilding: Phases of Development and Diversity". Revista da Universidade de Coimbra. Vol. 33. Lisboa: Instituto de Investigação Científica Tropical. pp. 543–572. Retrieved 22 February 2023.
  3. ^ Schwarz, George Robert. The History and Development of Carvels Maritime History (Thesis). Office of Graduate Studies of Texas A&M University. pp. 75, 84. Retrieved 23 February 2024 – via Scribd.
  4. ^ Elbl, Martin (1994). "The Caravel and the Galleon". In Gardiner, Robert; Unger, Richard W (eds.). Cogs, Caravels and Galleons : the sailing ship, 1000-1650. London: Conway Maritime Press. ISBN 0851775608.
  5. ^ Russell, Peter E. (2000). Prince Henry 'the Navigator': A Life. Yale University Press. p. 229. ISBN 0-300-09130-3.

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