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The pirates used a variety of ships, though generally gave preference to those with the greatest speed

Pirates used a variety of ships, though generally gave preference to those with the greatest speed for it would do no good to spot a potential target only to have it out- sail you. Amid their favorites were the sloop and the schooner.

The Carrack

Carracks are regarded as the immediate predecessor of the galleon in terms of ship design. They were the first large square-rigged ships to ply the seas and were valued because of their large capacity for carrying troops or cargo.

Carracks differed from galleons in that they were still primarily medieval ships built with an emphasis on winning a medieval style battle. The design emphasis was not on sailing quailities and artillery capacity, but with building a ship resistant to enemy boarding parties. (To a lesser extent this is true of the galleon as well and contributed to its eventual demise as a ship design) To repel boarders the aft and forecastles were built up as towering fortresses bristling with archery or gun slits. The relative similarities of galleon and carrack design are evident in the adjacent 17th century picture relatively small Portuguese carracks tangling with Dutch attackers. (These carracks are of rather late build and in a few days a graphic will be added here which better demonstrates the medieval origins of the design.)

Although guns are recorded as being in use on some European ships as early as 1337, they did not have any real affect on warfare for nearly 150 years. Early guns were of small caliber, slow to reload, and unreliable in battle.

The Caravel

Caravels were valued for their speed and relative ease of sailing in contrary winds. Prior to the development of the galleon they were the mainstay of Spanish shipping. However their small size limited the cargo capacity of the hull and they gradually disappeared in the late 16th century.

In Spain and Portugal, the earliest known caravels date from the 13th Century. These early caravels were small, three-masted vessels with lateen rigging. They carried a crew of 5 or 6 men and were perhaps 50 tons in size. They were used as fishing boats, or coastal cargo ships.

The peak of the caravel was the period from the 1430s to the 1530s when all of Europe, not just Spain and Portugal, made use of them. By this time many caravels were 100--200 tons in size, although this was still quite small in comparison to the average 400 or 500 ton galleon that was to dominate the seas in later decades. The caravels of this time were often square-rigged on the fore and main masts, although the lateen rig was kept for the mizzen. The most famous caravels are the Nina and the Pinta, which sailed with Columbus on his maiden voyage to the New World.

The Galleon (circa. 1600)


The Galleon was the most famous naval vessel of its time.


A galleon sailing the trans-Atlantic route might vary from 100 to 1000 tons. A 400 ton ship would be average.


Three masts - square rigged - but many galleons had a lateen rig on the mizzen, especially 16th century ships.


4 to 8 knots under good wind. Sailing qualities varied widely between ships.


20 to 40 of varying caliber. See gunnery.


On average a mid-sized galleon might carry over a hundred mariners and passengers on trans-Atlantic voyages. Since each inch of space was at a premium, the galleons were often appallingly overcrowded. (See Life At Sea). In addition most galleons carried an infantry company of at least 100 troops. These troops were usually under the independent command of an army captain - which meant that most Spanish vessels had a "split command". This is in contrast to English and Dutch sea captains who would command the onboard contingent of marines as well as the sailors.

(1601 Treasure Fleet)
Oficiales (officers)87
Marineros (seamen)136
Grumetes (apprentices) 119
Pajes (pages)85
Artilleros (gunners) 136
Total Men
(excluding troops)
Total Ships 6

The table on the right lists the number of mariners who sailed on with the six ship treasure fleet in 1601. Note that it does not include passengers or the onboard companies of troops. Also note that this is solely the Armada de la Guardia (treasure fleet), and does not reflect the number of ships or personnel in the dozens of merchant vessels (flotas) that sailed with the galleons.


Below are the measurements of six galleons constructed in Spain during the 1620s. They are representative of galleons built during that era. Each served in the Spanish navy and several, if not all, at one time served in the Armada de la Guardia, which was responsible for protecting Spanish merchant vessels and for returning treasure to Spain.

Galleon Beam
Length on
Deck (ft.)
Depth of
Hold (ft.)
Begona 338110416618
Felipe33 8110316610
Baptista31 779815518
Reyes31 779815516
Santiago28 709113381
Sebastian 27 708913372
(* these are in Spanish toneladas. )

One can tell from looking at the figures above that 17th century ships, even galleons, were tiny compared to today's merchant vessels. The largest galleon, Begona, was a mere 81 feet long from stem to stern and 33 feet broad at her widest point.


Crown Edicts:

Ideally the ship's key measurements should be in line with Spanish edicts governing the matter. These edicts greatly evolved over the years, and gradually the towering forecastle and poop were reduced in size, and average hull size was lengthened and streamlined.


A hardwood, preferably cut in the winter when there was no sap. Common used woods included oak, cedar, cypress and olive trees. All parts of the tree were used, including the roots, which were cut into wooden nails. Hull planks were curved by clamping them down into the desired shape and steaming them over a fire.


The first step was to lay the keel (quilla) - the backbone of the ship. The stem (roda) and sternpost (codaste) were then erected, as well as the ribs. The outermost ribs (those located at the hull's widest point) defined the beam (manga) of the ship. Once all the ribs were in place the outer planking of the hull was nailed into place. Gaps in the planks were sealed with caulking. Work then began on the decks and castles. Shortly thereafter the hull would be launched, and further fitting out (erecting the masts, adding rigging, finishing the forecastle, etc.) was done while afloat.

Source: Carla Rahn, Six Galleons for the King of Spain, University of Minnesota Press, 1987 for the data above pertaining to the six galleons

The single-masted sloop had a bowsprit almost as long as her hull making her perhaps the swiftest of vessels of her day. If wind was favorable, a square topsail could be hoisted to give her speed that could on occasion exceed eleven knots.

Commonly the schooner sported two masts and had great speed as well. Perhaps her greatest virtue lie in her shallow draft that allowed her to navigate and patrol in waters that other ships could not.

A versatile ship favored for combat, the Brigatine could carry a crew of one hundred men, and a cargo half- again as big as the sloop or schooner. She had two masts. Her main sail could be fitted with either square sails that were best in quartering wind, or fore-and-aft sails for sailing windward.

The three-masted-square rigger boasted at least twenty cannon plus many swivel guns and crew of up to two hundred men; therefore, she made an excellent flagship for pirates despite her lethargic movement. Besides being greatly feared and comparable to a Navy Frigate, she had a reputation for seaworthiness on long voyages and a cargo space over thrice as large as that of the sloop.

The teredo worm that infested warm tropical waters found its home in the hulls of ships. Creating tunnels throughout the wood below the water line, it would deprive the vessel of the necesary speed that pirates required, and if not teated, ultimately the seaworthiness of their ships. To combat this nuisance hulls were coated with a concoction of sulfur, tar, and tallow which had to be applied at least three times a year.

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