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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 used in the 15th century by the Portuguese to explore along the West African coast and into the Atlantic Ocean. The lateen sails gave it speed and the capacity for sailing windward (beating). Caravels were used by the Portuguese and Castilians for the oceanic exploration voyages during the 15th and 16th centuries, during the Age of Discovery.


Its English name derives from the Portuguese caravela, which in turn may derive from the Latin carabus or κάραβος in Greek, 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 earliest caravels originated in the thirteenth century on the coasts of Galicia and Portugal. They may well have been derived from similar Muslim craft that were used elsewhere in the Iberian Peninsula.[2] These early caravels were used for offshore fishing and some coastal cargo carrying. They were small, lightly built vessels – perhaps of 20 tons or less, carrying, in one regional example, a crew of 5 men. Evidence from 1388 suggests that these were open boats. They carried a single-masted lateen rig. There is mention, in 1307, of larger caravels (up to 30 tons) in Biscay – a size that can be regarded as a ship, rather than a boat. Caravels were clearly a common type in Iberia for most of the 15th century.[3]

The caravel became the preferred vessel for Portuguese explorers like Diogo Cão, Bartolomeu Dias or Gaspar and Miguel Corte-Real, and by 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, with lateen triangular sails. Being smaller and having a shallow keel, the caravel could sail upriver in shallow coastal waters. With the lateen sails attached, it was highly maneuverable and could sail much nearer to the shore, 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 the spice trade of the Portuguese and the Spanish possible. However, for the trade itself, the caravel was later replaced by the larger carrack (nau), which was more profitable for trading. The caravel was one of the pinnacle ships in Iberian ship development from 1400 to 1600.


Due to its lighter weight and thus greater speed, the caravel was a boon to sailors. Early caravels generally carried two or three masts with lateen sails, while later types had four masts. Early 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,[4] 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 somewhat low capacity. It was in such ships that Christopher Columbus set out on his expedition in 1492; Santa María was a nau of about 100 tons which served as the flagship and the Pinta and Niña were smaller caravels of around 15–20 m with a beam of 6 m and displacing around 60–75 tons.

Square-rigged caravel

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 and the Tagus (1572). Galleon in the center (one type of Portuguese galleon), carracks, galley, round caravels, and caravels (lateen), among other vessels

See also


  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 2015-09-24. Retrieved 2014-01-08.
  2. ^ Elbl, Martin (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. Archived from the original on 2023-04-11. Retrieved 2023-02-22.
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ Russell, Peter E. (2000). Prince Henry 'the Navigator': A Life. Yale University Press. p. 229. ISBN 0-300-09130-3.