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Thread: Columbus-era Ships

  1. #1
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    Default Columbus-era Ships



    As fall envelopes us and people are starting to think about things like Columbus Day, Halloween and Thanksgiving I have seen a number of posts on sailing-related facebook pages lately about Columbus/Pilgrim-era ships (c. 1450-1650). I have always been fascinated that one of Columbus' caravelles was lateen rigged with no square sails. I have never sailed one of the many replicas of his ships that exist around the world today but what I have always wanted to know about them is this:

    Does a lateen-rigged caravelle sail demonstrably closer to the wind than a square-rigged caravelle?

    The obvious answer is yes, because a lateen rig is meant to go to weather and a square rig is less well adapted for doing that. But in the days of Columbus' caravelles I'm not all that certain that going hard to weather was important for them. Columbus just followed the tradewinds the whole way to the new world. We should all be so lucky! Several weeks crossing the ocean going somewhere between a broad reach and a run and hardly having to adjust a line!? That sounds great! I'm just not certain that when a shipwright in those days rigged a ship with lateen sails rather than square sails that the purpose for that would be been specifically to go to weather better than other vessels. If that were the case why weren't all vessels weatherly lateen rigged ships from there on after?

    What if circumstances had necessitated his beating his way to windward back across the pond to get home? Would the lateen-rigged caravelle in his fleet been more capable of doing that than his square-riggers? Just how close to the wind can a lateen-rigged caravelle get, and is it any closer than a square-rigged one? Has anyone here on the forum sailed one of these replicas? How does the lateen rig compare to say, a 19th-20th century schooner?

    "And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by..."

  2. #2
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    Default Re: Columbus-era Ships

    I'd say there are too many variables from ship to ship to generalize. I haven't sailed a lateen rigged replica, but I did crew on the Kalmar Nyckel, a replica of a circa 1625 Dutch pinnace, for 12 years. The square rig gets more sail area on a ship of a given displacement, and also offers an endless array of sail setting options. They can turn around in place, back up, and even drop the top masts when needed. I suspect that the square riggers were cargo haulers, and the lateens lighter, speedier and more weatherly at the expense of less carrying capacity. I believe the lateens were more prevalent in the Mediterranean, a different sailing environment than the North Atlantic, in any case.
    -Dave

  3. #3
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    Default Re: Columbus-era Ships

    I believe that caravels were normally lateen rigged and the square rig was a conversion for the voyage as better suited to deep sea sailing. The one ship of his that was lateen rigged was re rigged with square sails on their stop in the Canary islands early in the voyage. I have not sailed a lateen vessel so I cannot shed any light on their windward performance.

  4. #4
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    Default

    Thanks Colin and Wox, very interesting observations.
    "And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by..."

  5. #5
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    Default Re: Columbus-era Ships

    A good book is Sons of Sinbad by Alan Villiers. It his account of sailing on Arabian Dhows in the 1930s. Gives interesting insight in to lateen rigged ships, though they are very differnt then the ships that sailed in the Mediterranean.

  6. #6
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    Default Re: Columbus-era Ships

    Quote Originally Posted by Colin Burt View Post
    A good book is Sons of Sinbad by Alan Villiers. It his account of sailing on Arabian Dhows in the 1930s. Gives interesting insight in to lateen rigged ships, though they are very differnt then the ships that sailed in the Mediterranean.
    Trouble with Dhows is that there are two sorts of lateen rigs. One set up for sailing down wind in the monsoons there and back. I believe that they normally wear ship if they have to come about
    And the other sort that can tack.
    It really is quite difficult to build an ugly wooden boat.

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    Default Re: Columbus-era Ships

    hhthttp://forum.woodenboat.com/images/attach/jpg.giftp://forum.woodenboat.com/images/attach/jpg.gifttp://forum.woodenboat.com/images/attach/jpg.gif A good opportunity to find boats and ships with square sail and latin is La Semaine du Golfe in Brittany, France. I took these in may 2017 and next spring 2019 there will be a new edition.
    Attached Images Attached Images

  8. #8
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    Default Re: Columbus-era Ships

    The Humber keels were square rigged for river work & gaff rigged for sea work.
    The square sail pointed higher, usefull on canals, but reputadly would reverse into the bank while you were tacking.
    I think the Lateen is nearer to a spinnaker. Or maybe not!
    Clive P
    Have nothing you don't know to be usefull or think to be beautifull. William Morris

  9. #9
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    Default Re: Columbus-era Ships

    The lateen rig does indeed have excellent windward ability. The lateen sail is nothing more than a jib-headed sail on a spar, rather than a stay. The lateen (a derivative of the word "Latin,") also sails well on a reach or dead downwind. Where the square sail comes into its own is downwind on larger vessels where greater sail area can be more efficiently spread and handled on square yards. The larger vessels of the "Age of Exploration" generally had square sails on the fore and main masts and a lateen sail on the shorter mizzen and jigger masts. Of course, within the Med where "human power" was expendable, France, Italy, the Levant, and North African carried lateen sails alone, supplemented by galley slaves at the oars in their naval vessels until quite late in the evolution of sailing ships.



    Contemporary drawing of the Battle of Lepanto, 1571:



    US Navy vs. Barbary pirates off Tripoli:




    Lateen rigged fishing boats, a direct import by Italian fishermen sailing out of "Fisherman's Wharf" in San Francisco, endured until as late as pre-WWII. The Golden Gate Bridge, possibly under construction, in the distance at the left side of the photo would date it from at least 1935 or so. There are no original examples extant, but oral histories indicate the "fellucas" were very seaworthy and fast, but it took skill to sail them. They had no ballast keels or centerboards. A few replicas have been built in recent decades and have proven the oral histories to be true.



    Last edited by Bob Cleek; 10-01-2018 at 06:54 PM.

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