The Carrack

By the late-1400s, Portuguese and Spanish shipbuilders were developing the next generation of sailing vessels known as carracks. There are as many definitions of a carrack as there are books about early shipping.

The Portuguese carrack was often referred to as a “round boat” and sometimes as a “supply ship.” In general, the design of a Portuguese carrack combined the old round-bottomed naos with the more advanced rigging of a caravel. Caravels were fast and agile and could handle the coast of Africa. But as the Portuguese and Spanish ventured farther out into the open ocean, and when they were away from civilization longer, they needed larger, sturdier ships. The carrack could hold more men and supplies than a caravel, could stay at sea for longer periods, and bring back more treasure.

Carracks sported three, sometimes four masts and a combination of square and lateen sails. They also had taller and larger forecastles and sterncastles than caravels. A long pointed pole called a bowsprit extended from – you guessed it – the bow, a strategic weapon of war when one ship wanted to ram another ship. Actually, the bowsprit was not meant to serve as a ramming rod but rather as an anchor point for the forestay, the part of the rigging that kept the mast from falling backward.

Here is a partial list of some of the carracks we are going to hear about:

Christopher Columbus introduced the hammock, which he learned about from the American Indians. Until then, crew members slept on the wood decks. Hammocks were often hung four layers deep from the deckhead or the side of the ship.

A model of Vasco da Gama’s flagship São Gabriel [Saint Gabriel] is on display at the Dighton Rock Park Museum near Fall River, Massachusetts. The model was a gift to the museum from Portuguese Prime Minister, Admiral Pinheiro de Azevedo. [Please excuse the not-so-clear photograph of her.]

The placard next to the model states that Lisbon’s Maritime Museum workshop built this model in 1977 on a scale of 1:30. The actual São Gabriel was 85 feet long and carried 50 tons of cargo. Note the Order of Christ symbol on the sails. The placard by the model notes that the cross was unique because it was the “only one with extremities terminating in a 45-degree angle.”

Vasco da Gama belonged to the Order of São Tiago. He may not have displayed the cross from the Order of Christ on his first voyage to India. He joined the Order of Christ later in life.

Next article: Diogo Cão Reaches the Congo River