Last updated
The large carrack, thought to be the Santa Catarina do Monte Sinai, and other Portuguese carracks of various sizes. From painting, attributed to either Gregorio Lopes or Cornelis Antoniszoon, showing voyage of the marriage party of Princess Beatrice of Portugal, Duchess of Savoy in 1521. Portuguese Carracks off a Rocky Coast.jpg
The large carrack, thought to be the Santa Catarina do Monte Sinai , and other Portuguese carracks of various sizes. From painting, attributed to either Gregório Lopes or Cornelis Antoniszoon, showing voyage of the marriage party of Princess Beatrice of Portugal, Duchess of Savoy in 1521.
C. 1558 painting of a large carrack attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Medieval carrack - detail by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.jpg
C. 1558 painting of a large carrack attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

A carrack (Portuguese : nau, Spanish : nao, Catalan : carraca, Croatian : karaka) is a three- or four-masted ocean-going sailing ship that was developed in the 14th to 15th centuries in Europe, most notably in Portugal. Evolved from the single-masted cog, the carrack was first used for European trade from the Mediterranean to the Baltic and quickly found use with the newly found wealth of the trade between Europe and Africa and then the trans-Atlantic trade with the Americas. In their most advanced forms, they were used by the Portuguese for trade between Europe and Asia starting in the late 15th century, before eventually being superseded in the 17th century by the galleon, introduced in the 16th century.


In its most developed form, the carrack was a carvel-built ocean-going ship: large enough to be stable in heavy seas, and capacious enough to carry a large cargo and the provisions needed for very long voyages. The later carracks were square-rigged on the foremast and mainmast and lateen-rigged on the mizzenmast. They had a high rounded stern with aftcastle, forecastle and bowsprit at the stem. As the predecessor of the galleon, the carrack was one of the most influential ship designs in history; while ships became more specialized in the following centuries, the basic design remained unchanged throughout this period. [1]


English carrack was loaned in the late 14th century, via Old French caraque, from carraca, a term for a large, square-rigged sailing vessel used in Spanish, Italian and Middle Latin.

These ships were called carraca in Portuguese and Genoese, carraca in Spanish, caraque or nef in French, and kraak in Dutch.

The origin of the term carraca is unclear, perhaps from Arabic qaraqir "merchant ship", itself of unknown origin (maybe from Latin carricare "to load a car" or Greek καρκαρίς "load of timber") or the Arabic القُرْقُورُ (al-qurqoor) and from thence to the Greek κέρκουρος (kerkouros) meaning approximately "lighter" (barge) literally, "shorn tail", a possible reference to the ship's flat stern). Its attestation in Greek literature is distributed in two closely related lobes. The first distribution lobe, or area, associates it with certain light and fast merchantmen found near Cyprus and Corfu. The second is an extensive attestation in the Oxyrhynchus corpus, where it seems most frequently to describe the Nile barges of the Ptolemaic pharaohs. Both of these usages may lead back through the Phoenician to the Akkadian kalakku, which denotes a type of river barge. The Akkadian term is assumed to be derived from a Sumerian antecedent. [2] A modern reflex of the word is found in Arabic and Turkish kelek "raft; riverboat". [3]

Replica of Dubrovacka karaka (Dubrovnik Carrack), used between the 14th and the 17th century for cargo transport in the Republic of Ragusa (present-day Croatia) Trading ship in Dubrovnik.JPG
Replica of Dubrovačka karaka (Dubrovnik Carrack), used between the 14th and the 17th century for cargo transport in the Republic of Ragusa (present-day Croatia)


Ottoman barca from Piri Reis' map. Ottoman Barca from Piri Reis' Kitab-i Bahriye.jpg
Ottoman barca from Piri Reis' map.
16th-century depiction of a Portuguese nau Portuguese Nau.png
16th-century depiction of a Portuguese nau
Naval battle involving carracks and galleys Galleys and carracks in battle.jpg
Naval battle involving carracks and galleys
Three and four masted carracks Four-master and Two Three-masters Anchored near a Fortified Island from The Sailing Vessels MET DP102238.jpg
Three and four masted carracks
Replica of a small 15th-century or 16th-century carrack at Vila do Conde, Portugal. Vila do Conde 2018 (9).jpg
Replica of a small 15th-century or 16th-century carrack at Vila do Conde, Portugal.

By the Late Middle Ages the cog, and cog-like square-rigged vessels equipped with a rudder at the stern, were widely used along the coasts of Europe, from the Mediterranean, to the Baltic. Given the conditions of the Mediterranean, galley type vessels were extensively used there, as were various two masted vessels, including the caravels with their lateen sails. These and similar ship types were familiar to Portuguese navigators and shipwrights. As the Portuguese gradually extended their trade ever further south along Africa's Atlantic coast during the 15th century, they needed larger, more durable and more advanced sailing ships for their long oceanic ventures. Gradually, they developed their own models of oceanic carracks from a fusion and modification of aspects of the ship types they knew operating in both the Atlantic and Mediterranean, generalizing their use in the end of the century for inter-oceanic travel with a more advanced form of sail rigging that allowed much improved sailing characteristics in the heavy winds and waves of the Atlantic Ocean and a hull shape and size that permitted larger cargoes. In addition to the average tonnage naus, some naus (carracks) were also built in the reign of John II of Portugal, but were only widespread after the turn of the century. The Portuguese carracks were usually very large ships for their time, often over 1000 tons[ clarification needed ], [4] and having the future naus of the India run and of the China and Japan trade, also other new types of design.

A typical three-masted carrack such as the São Gabriel had six sails: bowsprit, foresail, mainsail, mizzensail and two topsails.

In the Republic of Ragusa a kind of a three or four masted carrack called Dubrovačka karaka (Dubrovnik Carrack) was used between the 14th and the 17th century for cargo transport.

In the middle of the 16th century the first galleons were developed from the carrack. The galleon design came to replace that of the carrack although carracks were still in use as late as the middle of the 17th century due to their larger cargo capacity.

In Asia

Starting in 1498, Portugal initiated for the first time direct and regular exchanges between Europe and India—and the rest of Asia thereafter—through the Cape Route, a voyage that required the use of more substantial vessels, such as carracks, due to its unprecedented duration, about six months.

On average, four carracks connected Lisbon to Goa carrying gold to purchase spices and other exotic items, but mainly pepper. From Goa, one carrack went on to Ming China in order to purchase silks. Starting in 1541, the Portuguese began trading with Japan, exchanging Chinese silk for Japanese silver; in 1550 the Portuguese Crown started to regulate trade to Japan, by leasing the annual "captaincy" to Japan to the highest bidder at Goa, in effect conferring exclusive trading rights for a single carrack bound for Japan every year. In 1557 the Portuguese acquired Macau to develop this trade in partnership with the Chinese. That trade continued with few interruptions until 1638, when it was prohibited by the rulers of Japan on the grounds that the ships were smuggling Catholic priests into the country. The Japanese called Portuguese carracks "Black Ships" (kurofune), referring to the colour of the ship's hulls. This term would eventually come to refer to any Western vessel, not just Portuguese.

The Islamic world also built and used carracks, or at least carrack-like ships, in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. Ottoman barca of Piri Reis' map is a deep-hulled ship with a tall forecastle and lateen sail in the mizzenmast. [5] :329–330 The harraqa (Saracen: karaque) was a type of ship used to hurl explosives or inflammable materials (firebomb in earthenware pots, naphtha, fire arrows). From the context of Islamic texts, there are 2 types of harraqa: The cargo ship and the smaller longship (galley-like) that was used for fighting. It is unclear whether the nomenclature harraqa has a connection with European carraca (carrack), or whether one influences the other. One Muslim harraqa named Mogarbina was captured by the Knights of St. John in 1507 from the Ottoman Turks and renamed Santa Maria. [5] :343–348 Gujarati ships are usually called naos (carracks) by the Portuguese. Gujarati naos operated between Melaka and the Red Sea, and were often larger than Portuguese carracks. The Bengalis also used carrack, sometimes called naos mauriscas (Moorish carracks) by the Portuguese. Arabs merchants of Mecca apparently used carracks too, since Duarte Barbosa noted that the Bengali people have "great naos after the fashion of Mecca". [6] :605–606,610

Famous carracks

The word caracca and derivative words is popularly used in reference to a cumbersome individual, to an old vessel, or to a vehicle in a very bad condition. [7] The Portuguese form of Carrack, a Nau, is used as their unique unit in the Civilization V and Civilization VI strategy game.

See also

Related Research Articles

Sailing ship Large wind-powered water vessel

A sailing ship is a sea-going vessel that uses sails mounted on masts to harness the power of wind and propel the vessel. There is a variety of sail plans that propel sailing ships, employing square-rigged or fore-and-aft sails. Some ships carry square sails on each mast—the brig and full-rigged ship, said to be "ship-rigged" when there are three or more masts. Others carry only fore-and-aft sails on each mast, for instance some schooners. Still others employ a combination of square and fore-and-aft sails, including the barque, barquentine, and brigantine.

Sail plan Description of the specific ways that a sailing craft is rigged

A sail plan is a description of the specific ways that a sailing craft is rigged. Also, the term "sail plan" is a graphic depiction of the arrangement of the sails for a given sailing craft.

Brigantine Two-masted sailing vessel

A brigantine is a two-masted sailing vessel with a fully square-rigged foremast and at least two sails on the main mast: a square topsail and a gaff sail mainsail. The main mast is the second and taller of the two masts.

Xebec Sailing vessel

A xebec, also spelled zebec, was a Mediterranean sailing ship that was used mostly for trading. Xebecs had a long overhanging bowsprit and aft-set mizzen mast. The term can also refer to a small, fast vessel of the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, used almost exclusively in the Mediterranean Sea.

Galleon Large and multi-decked sailing ships

Galleons were large, multi-decked sailing ships first used as armed cargo carriers by European states from the 16th to 18th centuries during the age of sail and were the principal vessels drafted for use as warships until the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the mid-1600s. Galleons generally carried three or more masts with a lateen fore-and-aft rig on the rear masts, were carvel built with a prominent squared off raised stern, and used square-rigged sail plans on their fore-mast and main-masts.

Caravel Type of sailing ship

The caravel is a small highly-maneuverable sailing ship developed in the 15th century by the Portuguese to explore along the West African coast and into the Atlantic Ocean. The lateen sails gave it speed and the capacity for sailing windward (beating). Caravels were used by the Portuguese and Castilians for the oceanic exploration voyages during the 15th and 16th centuries, during the Age of Discovery.

Carvel (boat building) Method of building a boat

Carvel built or carvel planking is a method of boat building in which hull planks are laid edge to edge and fastened to a robust frame, thereby forming a smooth surface. Traditionally the planks are neither attached to, nor slotted into, each other, having only a caulking sealant between the planks to keep water out. Modern carvel builders may attach the planks to each other with glues and fixings.

Lateen Type of sailing rig

A lateen or latin-rig is a triangular sail set on a long yard mounted at an angle on the mast, and running in a fore-and-aft direction.

Mast (sailing) Pole used in rigging of a sailing vessel

The mast of a sailing vessel is a tall spar, or arrangement of spars, erected more or less vertically on the centre-line of a ship or boat. Its purposes include carrying sails, spars, and derricks, and giving necessary height to a navigation light, look-out position, signal yard, control position, radio aerial or signal lamp. Large ships have several masts, with the size and configuration depending on the style of ship. Nearly all sailing masts are guyed.

Fluyt Dutch type of sailing vessel

A fluyt is a Dutch type of sailing vessel originally designed by the shipwrights of Hoorn as a dedicated cargo vessel. Originating in the Dutch Republic in the 16th century, the vessel was designed to facilitate transoceanic delivery with the maximum of space and crew efficiency. Unlike rivals, it was not built for conversion in wartime to a warship, so it was cheaper to build and carried twice the cargo, and could be handled by a smaller crew. Construction by specialized shipyards using new tools made it half the cost of rival ships. These factors combined to sharply lower the cost of transportation for Dutch merchants, giving them a major competitive advantage. The fluyt was a significant factor in the 17th-century rise of the Dutch seaborne empire. In 1670 the Dutch merchant marine totalled 568,000 tons of shipping—about half the European total.

<i>Pinta</i> (ship) One of the three ships participating on Columbus first transatlantic voyage

La Pinta was the fastest of the three Spanish ships used by Christopher Columbus in his first transatlantic voyage in 1492. The New World was first sighted by Rodrigo de Triana aboard La Pinta on 12 October 1492. The owner of La Pinta was Cristóbal Quintero. The Quintero brothers were ship owners from Palos. The owner of the ship allowed Martín Alonso Pinzón to take over the ship so he could keep an eye on the ship.

Polacca Type of ship used in the 17th-19th centuries

A polacca is a type of seventeenth- to nineteenth-century sailing vessel, similar to the xebec. The name is the feminine of "Polish" in the Italian language. The polacca was frequently seen in the Mediterranean. It had two or three single-pole masts, the three-masted vessels often with a lateen hoisted on the foremast and a gaff or lateen on the mizzen mast. The mainmast was square-rigged after the European style. Special polaccas were used by Murat Reis, whose ships had lateen sails in front and fore-and-aft rig behind.


A foresail is one of a few different types of sail set on the foremost mast (foremast) of a sailing vessel:

The ships of Medieval Europe were powered by sail, oar, or both. There was a large variety, mostly based on much older, conservative designs. Although wider and more frequent communications within Europe meant exposure to a variety of improvements, experimental failures were costly and rarely attempted. Ships in the north were influenced by Viking vessels, while those in the south by classical or Roman vessels. However, there was technological change. The different traditions used different construction methods; clinker in the north, carvel in the south. By the end of the period, carvel construction would come to dominate the building of large ships. The period would also see a shift from the steering oar or side rudder to the stern rudder and the development from single-masted to multi-masted ships. As the area is connected by water, people in the Mediterranean built different kinds of ships to accommodate different sea levels and climates. Within the Mediterranean area during the Medieval times ships were used for a multitude of reasons, like war, trade, and exploration.

Iberian ship development, 1400–1600 Technological development due to wars

Due to centuries of constant conflict, warfare and daily life in the Iberian Peninsula were interlinked. Small, lightly equipped armies were maintained at all times. The near-constant state of war resulted in a need for maritime experience, ship technology, power, and organization. This led the Crowns of Aragon, Portugal, and later Castile, to put their efforts into the sea.

Square-rigged caravel

The square-rigged caravel, was a sailing ship created by the Portuguese in the second half of the fifteenth century. A much larger version of the caravel, its use was most notorious beginning in the end of that century. The square-rigged caravel held a notable role in the Portuguese expansion during the age of discovery, especially in the first half of the sixteenth century, for its exceptional maneuverability and combat capabilities. This ship was also sometimes adopted by other European powers. The hull was galleon-shaped, and some experts consider this vessel a forerunner of the fighting galleon, by the name of caravela de armada.

Shipbuilding in the early modern era

Maritime travel experienced a large leap in the capabilities of seafaring vessels thanks to technological improvements in shipbuilding in the early modern era. Europe, Asia, and the Middle East all saw improvements on prior construction techniques, contributing to the Age of Discovery. As a result, the introduction of these technologies in the production of naval vessels was critical as they allowed nations that utilized these advancements to ascend to a state that could expand its influence at a far greater range. In military engagements, the exploration of new lands and potential colonies, or the transportation of goods for trade, better shipbuilding techniques coincided with prosperity. It is during this time that the practice of naval architecture appeared, as skilled designers could produce designs that had an enormous impact in ship performance and capabilities.


  1. Konstam, A. (2002). The History of Shipwrecks. New York: Lyons Press. pp. 77–79. ISBN   1-58574-620-7.
  2. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 29 August 2007. Retrieved 14 January 2022.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  3. Gong, Y (1990). "kalakku: Überlegungen zur Mannigfaltigkeit der Darstellungsweisen desselben Begriffs in der Keilschrift anhand des Beispiels kalakku". Journal of Ancient Civilizations . 5: 9–24. ISSN   1004-9371.
  4. Braudel, F (1979). The Structures of Everyday Life . p.  423. ISBN   0060148454.
  5. 1 2 Agius, Dionisius A. (2007). Classic Ships of Islam: From Mesopotamia to the Indian Ocean. Brill Academic Pub. ISBN   978-9004277854.
  6. Burningham, Nick (2019). "Chapter 6: Shipping of the Indian Ocean World". In Schottenhammer, Angela (ed.). Early Global Interconnectivity across the Indian Ocean World, Volume II: Exchange of Ideas, Religions, and Technologies. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 141–201.
  7. 1 2 Cassar Pullicino, Joseph (October–December 1949). "The Order of St. John in Maltese folk-memory" (PDF). Scientia. 15 (4): 174. Archived from the original (PDF) on 17 April 2016.

Further reading