Christopher Columbus’s Three Ships

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In the seemingly ancient era of the 1400s, Christopher Columbus’s three iconic ships were constructed to be the utmost technologically advanced vessels for his revolutionary voyage to discover a more efficient route to the East Indies for trade. The widely-known Santa María, Niña, and Pinta were some of the best ships during the time, undoubtedly elegant figures to behold as they sailed across the pellucid waters surrounding Spain’s Port Palos, their majestic and durable sails beating gently in the wind.

Yet, to hand one of today’s most skilled naval captains the helm of a 15th century caravel would render the ship virtually unusable due to the vast distinction in naval technology that has developed over about five centuries of human progression. One of the major discrepancies in regards to the ships then and now is the difference in their respective functions. Whereas the ships of Columbus’s journey were crafted with the intent of exploration, those of the current era no longer serve this purpose, with the evident exception of underwater vessels for any existing unknowns beneath the sea.

Furthermore, seeing as there is little necessity for global exploration in modern society, corroborated by the existence of maps and satellites, ships are no longer designed for month-long voyages of discovering new land. However, naval technology on a general standpoint has insurmountably improved, suggesting the fact that Columbus, and the other explorers of his era, were limited by the naval technology of their time. Evidently, the ship technology of the Age of Discovery, spanning from approximately 1400-1500, was functional at the time but vastly disparate to the advanced and efficient technology of the present day.

To serve the purpose of Columbus’s journey, two types of exploratory vessels were utilized, known as caravels and carracks. Carracks such as the Santa María, generally being the bulkier of the two, were meant to carry cargo and supplies for the journey as well as any goods Columbus may have found at his destination, thus being crafted with larger storage space and well-suited for trading. Caravels, on the other hand, were swift and agile in comparison to their heavier counterparts, being easily navigable in the wind, and were commonly utilized by Spain and Portugal for exploration in the 1400s.

The caravels Niña and Pinta were distinctly faster than the flagship the Santa María, however, all three of them utilized “lateen sails”, triangular-shaped sails to navigate through multidirectional winds with ease. Caravels such as the Pinta could interchange their sails to square-rigged instead of lateens if necessary for the journey. In contrast, 21st Century vessels are equipped with machinery such propellers and engines, rather than sails to traverse through water. Moreover, today’s cargo ships can travel at speeds of 14-25 knots (depending on the consumption of fuel and other conditions), whilst caravels of Columbus’s generation averaged 4 knots, or 90-100 miles per day.

A plethora of ship designs also currently exist for a wide variety of functions, ranging from industrial, passenger, and commercial vessels to research ships. Not to mention that while Columbus’s ships were constructed with timber, the majority of today’s vessels use more durable materials such as steel, aluminum, concrete, or a conglomeration of other metals. Additionally, the artillery of Columbus’s voyage mainly consisted of cannons and gunpowder to defend against the pervasive threats of pirates and enemy navies. While this weaponry was advantageous in its ability to withstand adversaries of the 14th century, today’s naval warfare is vastly more advanced, with lasers, stun guns, and grenades included aboard ships for defense. Submarine missiles, sonars used by the U.S. Navy to detect hostile vessels, and submarines powered by nuclear technology are also able to be utilized for warfare.

Although not strictly pertaining to ship structure, Columbus incorporated a variety of tools aboard that his journey could not be completed without. Columbus utilized the compass for navigation, a prevalent tool in the Age of Discovery, as well as the simply designed “lead lines” to determine water depth and astrolabes, small circular instruments with a pivoting mechanism to measure latitude. Almanacs, hour-glasses, sundials, charts, and maps were used for a variety of purposes; to aid in navigation, ascertain the time of day, and determine one’s position relative to land or other landmarks.

Although efficient at the time, those tools would be considered primitive in today’s era of Global Positioning Systems (GPS), radios, ship sensors, satellites, sonars, and a multitude of other beneficial apparatuses. As manifested by the antiquated tools of the Age of Discovery, a prominent disadvantage of Columbus’s time was the lack of naval communication. Aboard his ships, he had no way of relaying information overseas back to Spain and no ability to converse between the Pinta, Niña, and Santa María. Yet, the expeditious technology of 21st Century has allowed for efficient and widespread global communication, including radios and cell phones that clearly were unheard of in the Age of Discovery.

Many of today’s vessels use the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System, a network to locate and rescue ships through radio transmitters and transceivers, satellites, and/or ship emergency beacons. Automatic Identification Systems also allow incoming vessels to be recognized at ports through their name, number, etc. Furthermore, Voyage Data Recording records all ship data through various sensors and equipment primarily for accident investigation. All of those systems instituted to interface with and track modern ships could have been a useful tool for Columbus to locate his Santa María, which became shipwrecked off of present-day Haiti within four months of setting sail on his first voyage. Although there are findings to suggest that the Santa María has been located, there is still uncertainty over the ship’s origins, which could have been prevented if radios or naval safety systems had existed in the late 1400s.

Cite this paper

Christopher Columbus’s Three Ships. (2021, Nov 22). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/christopher-columbuss-three-ships/

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