:: CARRACKS (I) ::

Evolution of the ship of the line
Evolution of the ship of the line


Galleys and galleasses
Galleys and galleasses

The large vessels, which traded beyond the Pillars of Hercules, used almost without exception the modern square rig. But the Mediterranean sailors used to sail ships with two or three masts, and since it is probable that they had trouble in keeping the heading with a square rig, it is understandable that they would install, behind the main mast, a smaller mast fitted with a lateen sail, to ease the steering of the ship. The first document about this dates back from 1367 and this kind of rigging became common at the beginning of the 15th century.

In that same period is when it starts to be mentioned the carrack. But the only sure thing is that this was a type of Mediterranean merchant ship, with a round stern like every ship of that time. Maybe the name indicated that the boat had a stern rudder, square rig and a small mizzen mast with lateen sail, as we can see in the illustration below, which is a representation of an early form of carrack based in a depiction from the 15th century. Maybe the carrack was identical to the hulk, which had replaced the cog in the North. But while the hulk was still of clinker construction, the carrack was of carvel construction, like the typical Mediterranean ship.

Early form of carrack
The vessel depicted in the illustration has a long row of protruding deck beams, as in the Egyptian vessels built during the reign of Queen Hatshepshut. Albeit the poop deck is supported by beams, the iron ribs which reinforce the sterncastle indicate that this one was not of robust construction. Under the forecastle, which had six faces, there was a long and curved beam, the bitt, whose ends probably protruded from the hull sides as well. On this beam was secured the anchor cable.

The shrouds of the carrack, as those in lateen-rigged vessels, have pulley blocks and long tackles, and a "cat ladder" reaches to the "crow nest". The yard of the square sail is made of two spars tied together and supported by topping lifts. It is possible that topping lifts started to be used when the square sail was introduced in the Mediterranean. They can be seen in Italian paintings since the early 14th century, but never in Nordic representations prior to the late 15th century. Roman ships already had them, and this suggests that maybe the square sail never disappeared completely from the Mediterranean.

The nau of Mataró, 1450

In a hermitage in Mataró, not far from Barcelona, was hung for centuries the model of a ship built in the mid 15th century. This has been the only known model of a ship from the time in which the history of the great discoveries started: the subsequent model is from about a century later. The model allowed to confirm details which otherwise would be only conjectures. It allowed to see the so debated beams which protrude on the hull sides, the bitt to fasten the anchor cable, crosstrees and beams of the crow nest, the triple parrel, the pulley wheel on a pole in each side of the forecastle, and the curved clinker-built boards beneath it.

In recent times the model has only one mast. It had originally three, but the experts agreed that the mast on the forecastle was a later addition. Similar ships in that time had only one mast, but those fitted with mizzen mast were already frequent. In this particular ship, the mast on the forecastle had been attached to the deck, whereas the mizzen mast had been inserted through a hole in the poop deck. This led to think that the model represents a two-masted carrack.

Officially, the model has been called "Spanish nau", but this term means only "ship". For instance, the Santa María, flagship of Christopher Columbus, was given this name to indicate that she was not a caravel. It seems that in that time all the large ships with round stern and square rig were called nau in Spain, whereas in other places they were designated with different forms of the term carrack, and in the North, with both carrack and hulk. It is almost impossible to affirm whether the different terms refer to the same or, actually, different types of ships.

Note from the author/translator: carracks and naus are fundamentally the same type of ship; the latter denomination originated in the Iberian kingdom of Catalonia and it is common that some experts, notably from Spain, point to certain structural differences between carracks and naus, albeit these might be not consistent or notable enough to consider carracks and naus as two different types.

Nau of Mataró, 1450

The three-masted ship

The transition from the two-masted to the three-masted ship was a natural one and it required not much time. The sailors who understood the need to place a balancing sail after the main mast should soon notice the advantages of a similar sail in the forecastle. It is possible that already in the early 15th century, or even before, existed three-masted carracks, but the oldest depiction dated is from 1466. A Moorish plate, allegedly made in Al-Andalus during the early 15th century, depicts a Portuguese three-masted carrack, whose modern representation can be seen in the following picture.

The fore sail was small, even smaller than the lateen sail. It was not intended for propulsion but to help on the steering of the ship. The main mast is very thick and we can suppose that in a ship of such size it should be formed by several spars tied together. The shrouds are of southern style, without ratlines, and the main yard is formed by two pieces, method which would be in use in the South for some time. In that time it was usual to lace a bonnet on the foot of the main sail. There are several frames to protect the hull from possible impacts against a dock and to reinforce its upper part and the bulwarks. The anchor is tied to a rectangular hole in the bulwark and beneath this one we can see one of the ends of the bitt. Upon the sterncastle has been added another deck, which later would be called "poop deck".

Portuguese carrack, early 15th century

The carrack in the late 15th century

In a series of paintings made by Carpaccio were included different ships showing interesting details; many have a forecastle with a new deck, many others have on their hulls a net of strakes and frames, and some others are fitted with a new sail, the topsail, hoisted in the flagpole of the main mast and tacked from the crow nest. In a contemporary tractate about naval construction there is a large carrack, whose upper rows of protruding beams indicate that the main deck was not always a flush deck. The dimensions of the ship were indicated: length from stem to sternpost, 38 meters; length of the keel, 26 meters; beam, 10.36 meters.

The most instructive of the ancient representations is that of the kraeck from Flemish master W.A., circa 1470, whose modern representation can be seen below. This carrack has a forecastle with two decks and a sheltering tent on the upper one. Upon the quarterdeck there is a new and long deck, and behind the mizzen mast another tent. In the stern there is a balcony and a toilet on each side. A difference from all the previous representations of sailing ships are the cannons, and we can consider this carrack as a powerfully armed merchant ship. In the sterncastle are mounted five cannons per side, there is a falconet mounted in the mizzen crow nest and several small-caliber pieces in the main and fore crow nests. There are also ropes to lift ammunitions to the crow nests on the main and fore masts, and from the bowsprit hangs a grappling iron used for hooking an enemy ship for boarding.

Both the fore sail and the lateen are intended now for propulsion. The main shrouds, following the northern style, are tied to channels through deadeyes and lanyards, but ratlines are still missing. The main yard has twin topping lifts and the mizzen yard has a topping lift going from beneath the main crow nest. Crow nests are now present on the three masts. There are "spider" leechlines to hoist the main sail by its sides and clewlines to bring the sail clews to the yard when the square sails are hoisted. We can see also bowlines running from these to pulley blocks on the bowsprit.

Flemish carrack, 1470

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