What Kind of Ships Did Explorers Use in the 1500s?

Explorers travelled around the globe in the 1500s, finding new lands and routes. From Bartolomeu Dias' circumnavigation of the Cape of Good Hope in 1500 to the historic circumnavigation of the world by Sir Francis Drake from 1577 to 1580, the century was filled with daring adventures in the sea. The most important tool that enabled this exploration was the ship. Explorers used many kinds of ships in the 1500s, including caravels, carracks, galleons and flyboats.


The caravel had been in existence since the 13th century, when the Portuguese used it as a fishing vessel. The caravel was made famous by the Spanish and Portuguese explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries. The most notable explorer was Christopher Columbus, who led three vessels to the New World, two of which were caravels. The caravel had a sloping bow and a single-stem castle. By the 1500s, the caravel already had been around for centuries, but it had developed considerably in speed and maneuverability.


Galleons were better suited than caravels for long explorations across the ocean. They were large, multi-deck sailing ships with three or four masts. Although they were lightly armed compared with other warships of the period, such as ironclads and man-of-wars, galleons were armed with powerful cannons and could be used as warships. They weighed around 500 tons, although some versions of the ship weighed much more. The Manila galleons, for example, weighed up to 2,000 tons.


Carracks were some of the largest ships in existence in the 1500s. Carracks made in Portugal, for instance, weighed well over 1,000 tons. One problem with the ship was building costs. It cost the same amount to build five galleons as just three carracks. Carracks were known for their unusually high castles in bow and stern. The Englishman John Hawkins redesigned the carrack in 1570 when he eliminated the ship's high forecastle. The newly designed carracks had a high stern and low bow for increased speed and maneuverability.


Fly-boats were built for the first time in the 1500s and continued to be built into the 1800s. Built for coastal explorations, flyboats had one or two masts and weighed about 600 tons. They were flat-bottomed Dutch ships with a high stern and broad buttocks.

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About the Author

Brian Gabriel has been a writer and blogger since 2009, contributing to various online publications. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in history from Whitworth University.