ships and shipbuilding

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ships and shipbuilding

As frontiers of knowledge expanded during the Renaissance, new vessels made it possible for navigators to expand the limits of the known world. Medieval ships were small sailing vesselssome of them powered by oarsthat had a limited range and were best suited for use along coastlines and in river mouths. There were very different shipbuilding traditions in northern and southern Europe. Squat and wide ships known as cogs were in use in the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, while in Genoa and other Mediterranean ports, rowed galleys and small sailing ships modeled on the Arab dhow were built.

In the late Middle Ages, these two ship types were combined in a hybrid model known as the carrack. This ship, also known in Spain as the nao, was built in many European ports in the fifteenth century. It employed a larger sail as well as a bowsprit, a mast extended from the front of the ship. Castles were raised in the bow and at the rear of the ship. The carrack used a rudder built into the stem post, rather than a rudder steered from the side of the ship, and adopted the square mainsail, which had powered the cog and the longship. From the Arabs shipbuilders borrowed a lateen (triangular) sail that was rigged to a rear mizzenmast. As ships and crews grew larger, a third mast was added as well as a second topsail on the main mast.

Smaller and more maneuverable ships known as caravels were the key to longrange exploration. They were first used by the Portuguese to navigate down the west coast of Africa, where reefs, tricky currents, strong desert winds, and superstition had limited exploration to Cape Bojador, beyond which sailors believed the world simply ended. The caravel was more maneuverable than the carrack. It was developed from the dhows of the Muslim world, with a long, sloping hull and high, wide poop deck aft (in the rear). The ship could sail close to the wind and was extremely buoyant. Caravels could be rigged with square or lateen sails, depending on the wind conditions, and they could navigate in rivers and shallow waters, which made them useful for coastal exploration. The caravel brought the Portuguese as far as the East Indies and Brazil, and was also used in the first expedition of Christopher Columbus to the Western Hemisphere.

The artillery aboard ships transformed naval warfare, forcing ships to fight longerrange battles of maneuver and tactics that replaced the old strategy of simply grappling an enemy ship and trying to board her for a hand-to-hand fight. The carrack was used as both cargo vessel and warship; its gun ports allowed iron and bronze cannon to be added to the traditional complement of infantry and archers. The caravel was not fast enough, however, for good use as a warship. To meet this purpose, in the sixteenth century Portuguese and Spanish shipwrights pioneered the galleon. The galleon was a carrack turned into a large gun platform. It was an imposing ship, with several decks of guns and cannon firing from the forecastle and aft castle decks. Most galleons had four masts with two lateen-rigged masts in the back. Strong hulls made the ship good for long-distance campaigns, such as the great fleet of galleons and smaller ships known as the Spanish Armada. The galleon had a narrower profile and a low forecastle, making it extremely stable, fast, and maneuverable. It was also less expensive to build than the carrack. Galleons remained in use for three centuries both as military and cargo vessels, and were the forerunners of the large square-rigged, long-distance clipper ships that came into use in the eighteenth century.

See Also: Columbus, Christopher; exploration; Henry the Navigator; trade