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What Is a Galiot?

By Christian Petersen
Updated May 23, 2024
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A galiot, or galiote, as they were sometimes known, is a type of ship from the Age of Sail, which is generally regarded as covering the period from the 16th to the 19th century. Similar to galleys, these small to medium sized ships, while varying in design from country to country, were generally one or two masted sailing ships with relatively flat bottoms and rounded fore and aft ends, making them suitable for operations in shallow waters. They were not considered seaworthy for long, open-ocean voyages and were employed both as warships and merchant vessels.

In the Mediterranean, a galiot was likely to be lateen-rigged and also to have oars, a common design feature of Mediterranean ships. This dual propulsion configuration was intended to give ships more flexibility in maneuvering and travel in a region with unpredictable, shifting winds. The oars allowed these ships to travel regardless of wind direction and to perform maneuvers in ports or other tight areas that a purely sail-powered ship could not execute. A galiot of the Mediterranean was likely to only have one mast and twenty pairs of oars, although some were two-masted.

Galiots that sailed in the coastal waters of northern Europe were similar to their Mediterranean counterparts in terms of hull design but with a steeply upturned bow. They also lacked oars, and a European galiot rarely had only one mast. Most were two-masted and some ships of this type had a third mast as well. Sails were a mixture of lateen-rigged and square-rigged types.

These ships were most commonly operated by Dutch merchants and navies, but were occasionally used by the Germans, French, English, and even pirates. They plied shallow coastal waters, hauling cargo and occasionally passengers. Being of shallow draft, these ships could operate in areas inaccessible to larger ships or ships with deeper, V-shaped hulls.

Most galiots were merchant ships, but some were outfitted as warships. Those that carried armament had between 10 and 20 cannons, mostly small and medium caliber. These types of ships were most commonly employed in a coastal defense role, but some French ships were constructed as bomb ships, which were designed to bombard fortifications on land. Mortars were mounted on the decks and lobbed large explosive projectiles in a high arc over enemy defenses, raining down on the defenders and unfortified buildings. These French ships normally carried at least a few cannons for self defense as well.

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