Prince Henry’s caravel was specially designed for these explorer’s needs. He found some clues in the caravos, ships used by Arabs since ancient times off the Egyptian and Tunisian coasts, modeled on the still more ancient fishing vessels that the Greeks had made of rushes and hide. These dhows, rigged with “lateen”, slanting ant triangular sails, carried Arab crews of as many as thirty, in addition to seventy horses. A similar smaller, even more maneuverable vessel, called the caravela (-ela = diminutive) was in use on the Douro River in northern Portugal. Prince Henry’s shipbuilders produced the famous caravel, which combined some of the cargo-carrying features of the Arab caravos with the maneuverability of the Douro River caravelas.

These remarkable little vessels were large enough to hold an explorer’s supplies for a small crew of about twenty, who usually slept on deck but in bad weather went below. The caravel displaced about fifty tons, was about seventy feet in length and about twenty-five feet in the beam, and carried two or three lateen sail. “The best ships that sailed the seas” was what Alvise da Cadamosto (1432?-1511), the experienced Venetian mariner, called the caravels in 1456 after his African voyage in a caravel organized by Prince Henry. The caravel became the discoverer’s standard ship. Columbus’ three ships – the Santa Maria, The Pinta, and the Niña – were all of caravel design, and the Santa Maria was only one-fifth as big as the large Venetian square-riggers of his day. The caravel proved that bigger was not always better. […]

“The Portuguese Discoverers”, from “The Discoverers”, Daniel J. Boorstin, The National Board for the Celebration of Portuguese Discoveries, Lisbon, 1987