Originally a Portuguese fishing boat with lateen sails for local trade; but by the start of the 14th century it became the name of a small merchantman with lateen sails on two masts, a larger version of which was developed by Henry the Navigator for his exploration by sea along the coast of West Africa. This type was carvel-built, had no beakhead or stern castle, but a simple curved stem and a plain transom stern. Originally they carried lateen sails on all three masts (caravela latina), but they developed into three-masted, and occasionally four-masted, ships square rigged on their two, or three, forward masts with a lateen-rigged mizzen (caravela redonda). This provided a better balance of sail power and avoided to a great extent the main disability of the lateen sail, the immense length of the yard on which the sail was set and the need when tacking to lower the sail in order to bring the yard to the other side of the mast. It also enabled them to sail closer to the wind, and gave them greater manoeuvrability than would otherwise have been the case. The average overall length of a three-masted caravel was 23–5 metres (75–81 ft), although a few were built up to 30 metres (100 ft). Of the three ships in which Columbus's expedition sailed in 1492, both the Niña and Pinta were caravels, as were those used by Vasco da Gama.
Subjects: Maritime History.