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Medieval superships


Carracks and galleons

With the combining of lateen and square sails, the use of a rudder, the possibility of enlargement that came with frame-first construction, the merchant sailing ship reached its final phase of development.

The first ship type to show the characteristics of the modern sailing ship was the carrack in the mid 16th century.  Much bigger than the Catalan não, its hull was built up into castles fore and aft.  The rig represented a major development, with three or four masts.  The fore and main masts carried square sails, and were tall enough to each require two sails, a main sail and a topsail.  Aft, the carrack carried triangular lateen sails on one or two masts, the third known as the mizzen and the fourth the counter mizzen.  In this way the carrack combined the advantages of both square and lateen sails.  Perhaps the best known carrack is Henry VII’s Mary Rose, sunk in Portsmouth harbour on her maiden voyage in 1545 and raised some 450 years later. 

The galleon developed from the carrack.  The high castles at bow and stern were reduced but the hull grew in height.  In warships, one and later two extra decks were added so that more guns could be deployed and a bigger broadside fired.  Up aloft, the rig developed further.  The fore and main masts were even taller, with up to three sails on each, that above the topsail being called the topgallant.  The mizzen mast now had a lateen sail lower down, with a square topmast above this. 

The term galleon was used mainly by Spain, and the most important ships of the Spanish Armada were the galleons.  However, other seafaring nations built very similar ships, although not always quite so big, and not glorified by the name galleon.  An example is the Swedish Vasa, built and lost in the same year of 1627 but now raised and on exhibition in Stockholm.  The English gave the name ‘great ships’ to their equivalent of the galleon, and which helped defeat the Armada in 1688.

The full-rigged ship emerges 

In the galleon were most of the features of the full-rigged ship, probably the ultimate development of the commercial sailing ship (see DS4C for a description of this rig).  The main change from the galleon’s rig was a small one: the lateen sail on the mizzen was replaced by a four-sided sail the forward edge of which was attached to the mast.  There were developments to refine the full-rigged ship, but its essential elements were its attributes were decided by about 1600.  The major warships that fought the great sea battles of the 18th and 19th centuries carried this rig.  So did most of the largest merchant ships, including the very fast clippers.  Indeed, it was only the need for economy that arose from competition from steam that led owners to abandon the rig in favour of the barque rig for the very last ocean-going sailing ships. 

The full-rigged ship was one of the Europe’s most significant creations.  Its ability to voyage anywhere opened up the world to western influences, for good and ill.  It made worldwide empires, and world wars, possible.  But perhaps most importantly, its ability to carry goods and people reliably and relatively cheaply founded the world trade on which economies are now completely based.  The builders of the medieval superships like the carrack and galleon played a significant part in shaping the modern world.

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