The Galleon

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Pablo Edronkin

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The Galleon is arguably one of the best-known ship designs in history and an icon of the age of sail; it evolved from the carrack or nau and perhaps other types around the XVI century and for many years it remained as the basic ship design of European naval powers.

The name "Galleon" had already been in use in the middle ages, but to define a kind of ship altogether different. Medieval galleons were actually galleys. The galleons that sailed between the XVI and XVIII centuries were different, and the type itself evolved during this period. Variations according to the nation that constructed each galleon also were developed. There were trends, preferences and technologies that evolved differently.

While the Spanish and Portuguese galleons were arguably the more numerous and the better built due to the fact that these nations used often wood from the New World, which was better than European wood for shipbuilding, the Dutch became the leading constructors in terms of naval technology (see The Eight Galleons).

In a more modern sense, the ships built since the XVI century that were known as galleons were multi decked, large, very capable but extremely expensive; a forest of about 3.000 trees was required just to build one of these vessels, a task that usually took several hundred men working for about a year without pause. Nevertheless, galleons were at least slightly cheaper than the largest carracks. They evolved from the carrack and while some modifications like the aft and forecastle height and shape were obvious, others, like the elongation of the hull were not so visible but gave the galleon some of its fundamental qualities, like great stability in oceanic water.

Indeed, construction methods and technology had improved by the time the first galleons left the shipyard so considering all the advantages they had over the carracks, it comes not as a surprise that they began taking over the missions of the naus. So the carracks were left for secondary roles and cargo transport, until they were written off. One of the first things to go from the carracks was artillery, and all combat duties were soon passed over to the galleons.

Galleons ranged from approximately 500 tonnes to 2000, depending on the country where they were built and other considerations. One aspect that is interesting on the galleons as compared to the carracks is the rigging. Galleons were equipped with more complex and advanced rigging systems because it was noticed at the time that a considerable proportion of crew members would become incapacitated during long voyages, so, the new rigging was designed to allow management of the ship even with a skeleton crew.


Galleon
A Spanish galleon; Pablo Edronkin.

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