Fishing vessels called caravels first appeared in Spain and Portugal in the 13th century. These small, seaworthy sailing ships proved so agile and reliable that almost every European seafaring nation had adopted them by the end of the 15th century. Caravels carried cargo of all kinds throughout the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and Indian oceans and became a favorite of Portuguese and Spanish explorers.
Christopher Columbus's three ships would take him and his crew of 90 men to the New World in about 51 weeks. No one knows exactly what these ships looked like, but most scholars agree the Santa Maria (at center) was 23 to 27 m (75 to 90 ft) long. The Nina and the Pinta were 21 to 24 m (70 to 80 ft) long. These relatively small dimensions were characteristic of the vessels commonly used by Portugal and Spain in this time period.
Caravels were carvel-built-that is, constructed frame-first and covered with planks fitted flush to one another. They carried three or even four masts with lateen sails. The ships sailed into the wind well, were fast, and had a shallow draft that made them suitable for coastal as well as ocean travel. Caravels averaged a manageable 23 m (75 ft) in length and could be rowed if necessary.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, hundreds of caravels sailed along the west coast of Africa and to the Americas. In the early to mid-15th century, Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal sponsored voyages along the African coast that relied upon caravels. Famous explorer Christopher Columbus sailed caravels on his voyages of exploration under the flag of Spain in 1492. He rerigged the Nina, his favorite, with square sails on his voyage west to better use the following winds. Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias sailed caravels on his voyage around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa in 1488. Vasco da Gama also used them to sail across the Indian Ocean to establish Portuguese colonies in Asia in 1498.
By the end of the 16th century, the caravel's popularity had declined significantly. As European nations stepped up efforts to transport goods pillaged from faraway lands, demand for larger, more heavily armed ships increased. Efforts to enlarge the caravel proved unsuccessful-longer and wider versions did not sail as well as their smaller counterparts.