Ship design improved greatly in the late 1200s, 1300s, and 1400s, eventually allowing sailors to venture into turbulent oceans
and survive journeys of several years.
The advances came from combining two kinds of ships, those used in the Mediterranean and those used by the Vikings. In their original form, both ships were pulled by one sail and steered with a rudder off one side. In the north, shipbuilders greatly improved steering by placing the rudder in the rear.
In the Mediterranean, ships were built larger and two sails were added for more power. In the 1400s, shipbuilders combined the two designs into a durable, fast vessel that could be easily maneuvered.
The first European explorers sailed in a ship called the caravel. Two main masts supported triangle-shaped sails, with a smaller one in the rear. It was a narrow ship, allowing it to slice through ocean waves. But it also had a shallow keel, allowing captains to sail close to shore.
The deck was sealed with caulked planks, allowing waves to spill over and drain without swamping the lower compartments. Da Gama sailed a caravel around Africa, and Columbus led three caravels on his first journey
to North America.
As voyages grew longer and more stores were needed, a bigger ship called the nao was built. The nao had three large masts supporting square sails with a triangular one in the rear. Magellan’s five ships were all naos.
The caravel, with its triangular main sail, was a small, fast, and seaworthy ship used by many European captains in the 1400s. Columbus and da Gama made their voyages in caravels.