What kinds of boats did they travel in during the 1600s?

Updated February 21, 2017

The 1600s saw the permanent establishment of colonies in America by the English and French. Spain had already conquered in Mexico and had colonised islands in the Caribbean and Florida. Rich treasure ships carried gold and other goods from Mexico and South America to Spain. The 17th century was a busy time for sea travel as European settlers took ships to carry them to the New World. Coastal trading was brisk and smaller ships and boats with shallow drafts were used. The largest ships were ocean-going, both warships and merchant vessels.


Caravels were much-used ships developed in the 15th century in the Mediterranean. At first the ships were two masted and lateen rigged (triangle shaped sails). Later, Portuguese and Spanish explorers used caravels with three masts, the first two square rigged (square sails) and lateen rigged on the mizzen mast. Caravels were relatively small, 80 to 130 tons and about 75 feet long. Easy to manoeuvre, with a shallow draft, caravels excelled as ships for coastal exploration, but also for long voyages. The biggest drawback to the caravel was its small living quarters and lack of cargo space. Christopher Columbus's Santa Maria was a caravel.


Carracks had three or four masts, with the first two square-rigged and the mizzen lateen rigged. Larger than caravals, carracks were stable in heavy seas and offered space for crew, passengers, provisions and cargo. They could carry up to 1200 tons of cargo and had high forecastles and aft castles. The stable deck was suitable as a gun platform. The many benefits of the carrack included its ability to go long distances without stopping at ports, they were able to resist attack by smaller vessels, the rigging of the sails allowed flexibility, and carracks had good storage space for cargo. One major drawback was the large fore and aft castles, which made the ship prone to toppling over in strong winds. Carracks saw use up through the 17th century.


Galleons developed due to the awkward proportions of the carracks that hindered their sailing ability. The hull was redesigned giving greater hull-to-keel-to-beam ratios, which improved water flow and made the ship more manoeuvrable. The English further improved the galleon by using smaller and lower fore and aft castles, longer, slimmer hulls and changing the rigging for better use of the sails. English galleons were able to out run and out gun the bulkier Spanish galleons, which the English used to their advantage in combating the Spanish Armada. Galleons were used from the 16th through the 18th centuries.


Frigates had three masts with square sails and a raised forecastle and quarterdeck. Capable of holding and employing as many as 24 to 70 mounted guns or more, frigates were extensively used as escorts, patrols, scouts, and warships. They were often used to hunt and defend against pirate attacks. With space enough for 50 to 200 crew, frigates were fast and very manoeuvrable for their size.

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About the Author

Patricia Neill began writing professionally in 2000, spending most of her career as managing editor of “Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly.” Neill published political satire at and other libertarian websites. She also has an essay in “National Identification Systems: Essays in Opposition." Neill holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Nazareth College of Rochester.