The nau Santa María, 1492

With exception of Noah's Ark, the Santa María, flagship of Christopher Columbus, is surely the most famous ship in the world and there are thousands of models which allegedly represent her, ranging from those displayed in the main maritime museums, well built and fitted, to the monstrosities which are sold as souvenirs. But regardless of the quality, there is no model which can be considered as exact, for nobody knows for sure how the famous ship was. What is known is that she was not a caravel (a different question would be whether we really know how a caravel was).

Columbus often referred the Santa María as a nau, to differentiate her from the caravels - Pinta and Niña -, and almost all the modern experts agree in considering her as a carrack. She must have been a small one, for Columbus' biographer wrote that she was "a bit" larger than the two caravels. We also know for sure which sails she carried, for Columbus himself wrote about it in a passage of his diary corresponding to the 24th October 1492: "...and I carried all my sails of the nau, main sail, two bonnets, and fore sail, and bowsprit sail, and mizzen sail, and top sail..."

Columbus was not satisfied with the Santa María. She was slower and less maneuverable than the caravels. She had too much draught and "she was not suitable for discovery travels". Her draught is not known. All we know is that the draught of the Niña could not have exceeded one fathom (1.829 meters), roughly, for otherwise she would have not been able to cross the low waters of the southern Cuban coast. In his third travel to the West Indies, Columbus annotated that two of his ships were very large, one over 100 tonnes and the other over 70 tonnes, and "only the smallest ships are suitable for discovery travels, for the nau which I sailed in my first travel was heavy and because of this she was lost in the dock of La Navidad". The tonnage of a ship was measured then in tonnes (barrels) and a 70-ton ship was able to load 70 wine barrels. It is known that the Niña had a tonnage of 60, and we can deduce that the Santa María would have 80 as much, for she was "a bit" larger. Based on this, and considering that the Niña had a draught of one fathom, we can estimate the draught of the Santa María as roughly two meters.

But which was her appearance? There are not many depictions of small carracks and caravels from the late 15th century. A good reference are the paintings by Flemish master W.A., which depict three small Flemish merchant ships from 1470. Columbus mentioned the bowsprit sail, then of recent introduction, but apparently none of the ships depicted by W.A. displays one; however one of them carries a spar with a folded sail below the fore sail, and it was common, at least initially, to stow the small sail in the forecastle when it was not in use. In all of the three ships it can be seen that the poop deck rests above beams placed atop the bulwarks, to allow light and air to reach the cabins beneath the poop deck. In the Saint Mary's Church at Lübeck, there is a painting from 1489 depicting a small three-masted ship, and in a book printed in Lisbon in 1496 there is a xylography of a four-masted ship, which can be interpreted thanks to the description by Columbus: the lateen sail of the ship's boat was installed on the poop deck.

According to an ancient practical formula used by naval builders, the beam, lenght of the keel and length between stem and sternpost should keep the proportion 1:2:3. Knowing one of these dimensions would make easy to estimate the actual proportions of the Santa María, but only the tonnage and draught have been deduced. To represent a ship whose dimensions were close to the correct ones it was necessary to estimate the rest: length from stem to sternpost, 23.93 meters; length of the keel, 16.92 meters; beam, 7.92 meters; total sail area, about 325 square meters, of which about 200 correspond to the main sail and its two bonnets; complement, about 40.

Nau Santa María blueprints
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The following picture shows the appearance that could have had a small Galician nau in the late 15th century. Like this could have been the Santa María when she departed from Palos the 3rd August 1492. It is believed that the general appearance was like this, albeit almost all of the details could have been different. The number of sails is correct but their dimensions are hypothetical. The sheets of the small top sail were perhaps managed from the crow nest and not from the main deck. Here the disposition of the sheets is based in a bas-relief from Padua, but they could also go from the main yard to the poop deck, as in the Portuguese war carrack Santa Catarina do Monte Sinai which appears later in this article.

Nau Santa María
The Santa María probably carried some primitive artillery pieces for self-defense, as for example four or six lombards in the main deck and two small falconets in orientable mountings atop the bulwarks on the quarterdeck. These primitive cannons, which generally fired stone balls, were of little range and strike force, and also dangerous to operate, for they could explode if the gunners put an excessive gunpowder load on them. The barrel was reinforced with iron rings and strongly tied to a rudimentary wooden support. But thanks to these contraptions, the small carracks would evolve into strongly armed merchant ships and later extraordinarily armed warships (more imposing than effective however).

Lombard gun for carrack

Venetian carrack, 1500

In the painting View of Venice by Jacopo de Barbari, from 1500, we can see among other ships a large carrack which denotes a progress of thirty years in respect of the carrack depicted by Flemish master W.A. She has topsail, bowsprit sail and an additional mizzen mast, the bonaventure mizzen. Unlike the other ships in the port of Venice, the carrack has ratlines in the shrouds and because of this she should be considered as the most modern type of that time.

Turkish pirates were a constant danger for the Italian merchant ships, and because of this these had a numerous complement and were well armed with artillery, to the point that they could be classified as warships. In the Venetian carrack depicted in the illustration below we can count 28 cannons in the visible side, so she was armed with at least 56 cannons. Naval artillery was still light, with the largest pieces mounted in wooden supports without wheels and the others in support forks above the bulwarks. The artillery piece depicted in the illustration is one of breech-loading type. The bars of the protecting tent, very close to each other, surely had the purpose of preventing enemy boardings and it is possible that nets or gratings were added to render them even more difficult.

In the representation of the carrack were set the following dimensions: length from stem to sternpost, 30 meters; length of the keel, 21 meters; beam, 10 meters; distance from the parapet of the waist amidships to the lower face of the keel, 6.55 meters.

Venetian carrack cutaway
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Venetian carrack
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