THE CARRACK is the ship type that truly starts our
little excursion into the past of the full-rigged ship. Not only
did it for the first time incorporate the castle structures
into the hull, but it also already had all the basic rigging
elements that were expanded along the upcoming centuries.
Specific features of the carrack were its rounded stern,
with the planks curving around from the sides to the rudderpost,
the forecastle located directly above the stem, with the bowsprit
rising from its top -- an arrangement that had been unaltered
since the first "battlements" had been installed on the bow of a
sailing warship -- and the aftcastle that formed an integral part
of the hull.
The carrack (called "nao", for "ship", by the Portuguese)
was the definitive beast of burden of the Age of Exploration;
Magellan, for example, had an all-carrack fleet with which he
set to circumnavigate the globe in 1519. The spacious vessels
offered room for a large crew and provisions -- as well as for
cargo to be brought back home.
caravel latina and redonda
Another ship widely used in exploration was the lateen-rigged
caravel, or caravela latina and many were
modified as square-rigged ships, caravela redondas, to take
advantage of the fair wind -- for example, both of Christopher Columbus'
caravels of his 1492 voyage ended up as square-riggers. The shallower
hull and better lines of the caravel made them ideal for these long
voyages as they were inherently better sailers than the rolling,
bulky carracks, albeit their characteristics also meant smaller
The rigging underwent an extensive expansion:
The mainsail grew in size and there was often an additional
sheet line connected to the middle of the sail foot in
addition to the lower corners, clews. Moreover, one or two
detachable parts called bonnets were often added to the bottom
of the main sail, to be removed when wind speeds increased too high.
A third mast, the foremast with the foresail, was
first developed more as an aid in ship steering than as a propulsive unit
in itself. Later the sail and the mast grew in size and became a similar
part of the full rigging to the mainsail. An additional sail, the
spritsail was bended to a yard under the bowsprit. The sail
was called "blinda" in Germanic languages, which reflected the fact that
the sail effectively prevented visibility forward.
A new sail, the topsail emerged above the mainsail in the
late 15th Century, first as a small yard and sail on the flagstaff rising
from the top, then as a full-sized sail on its own mast attached to the
mainmast. Later, also the foremast got its topsail.
By the end of the reign of the carrack, a third sail, the
topgallant sail had appeared in some ships above the topsail
in its topgallant mast.
A new fourth mast, the bonaventure, was erected in some
larger ships behind the mizzen mast, carrying a lateen sail, the
bonaventure mizzen. Later, lateen topsails and even
topgallant sails were added atop the mizzen masts, although
their practicality was doubtful, and they must have been seldom
Another addition to the Mediterranean ship were the
ratlines, the horizontal "ladders" attached to the
shrouds which supported the masts from the sides. Although
ratlines had been present in the Northern European ships for over two
centuries, in the Mediterranean ships they had been so far replaced by
a rope ladder.
As the rigging developed with more mast and sails, also the size
of carracks increased. Giant 16th Century warships such as the
Portuguese Santa Catarina do Monte Sinai or Henry VIII's (the
creator of the Royal Navy) regal namesake Henry Grâce
à Dieu (1514) -- more "commonly" known as "Great Harry" --
and Mary Rose (1510, refitted in 1536) were examples of such,
almost lavish, undertakings that the new technology allowed. The
latters, with their bronze cannons on several decks and their
flat sterns, were, despite the towering castles, prototypes for the
future's gun-armed galleons.
The introduction of cast-iron as the material of heavy guns
(replacing wrought iron pieces joined together), along with the
replacement of breech-loaded guns on fixed mounts with mouth-loaded
on wheeled trucks in the mid-16th Century brought better
"predictability" to the behaviour of guns. The use of hinged gun
ports from the early 16th Century on allowed the placement of guns
into the lower decks, near waterline, thus increasing the number
of cannon aboard. These innovations made the concept of a heavy-gun
warship a reality.
The large superstructures of the carracks, however, affected
the use of rigging and thus their sailing characteristics: the
towering castles made the ship top-heavy and more prone to topple in
strong winds -- what actually happened to Mary Rose in 1545,
when burdened with excess load -- that limited the actually usable
sail area. The large superstructures also caused wind drag as the ship
sailed, and could reduce the wind hitting the courses, or lower
sails, ie. the mainsail and foresail.
Nevertheless, Columbus' diminutive flagship Santa Maria still
remained undoubtedly the world's most famous carrack.