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What Is a Galleon?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 23, 2024
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A galleon is a kind of sailing vessel that was widely used during the Age of Exploration. The technology and engineering of sailing ships made significant advances in the 15th and 16th centuries. The great naval powers of Europe used galleons and similar ships in campaigns of exploration and conquest in Africa, Australia, the Orient and the Americas. The galleon became the dominant ship design until the advent of mechanical ships in the early 19th century. It is highly recognizable, even in modern times, because of its connections to naval history, warfare and piracy.

During the 1400s, European nations such as Portugal, Spain and France became international sea powers, engaging in trade and exploration of distant lands. The wealth generated from this trade produced ships that were faster, better designed and more maneuverable than previous vessels. The classic design was the galleon, developed in Spain in the mid-1500s. It could function as either a merchant vessel or a warship, and many galleons performed both roles during their time at sea. Galleons featured prominently in the Spanish Armada of 1588 and were used in exploratory missions such as Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe.

Although the term “galleon” is sometimes used for oar-bearing ships, true galleons were powered by sails mounted to three or four upright masts. The multi-decked vessels benefited from lower superstructures and narrower hulls than previous ships, making them faster and more agile in the hands of a seasoned crew. Galleons usually carried cannons, even during trade missions, in case of piracy or acts of war. As the state-of-the-art of naval engineering of the time, they often benefited from fine craftsmanship. The largest ships were galleons, as were those that made the longest sustained journeys.

The seagoing nations of Renaissance Europe competed to create the largest, most advanced and most powerful galleons. State-sponsored pirates called privateers raided the vessels of rival nations, sometimes capturing them for their own fleets. Likewise, new advances in engineering eventually were co-opted by others. The age of colonialism that arose in the 16th to 19th centuries existed in large part because of the galleon. The ships were a primary tool, moving people, weapons and goods to and from conquered lands.

The age of the galleon and similar ships effectively lasted until the early 1800s, when machine-powered ships changed the nature of sea travel. In 1628, the Swedish warship Vasa, based on galleon designs, sank on its maiden voyage. It was discovered and retrieved during the 20th century, providing a vital historical glimpse into the age of the galleons. The ship’s design is still familiar in modern times because of seaworthy reproductions in maritime museums. These reproductions are also on view in popular films set in the age of the galleon, such as The Sea Hawk and the Pirates of the Caribbean series.

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Discussion Comments
By Logicfest — On Nov 24, 2014

@Vincenzo -- And that is precisely why it was common for sailors to resort to oars to move ships when there was no wind. Not all galleons had oars and rowers, but more than a few did.

Of course, that all became moot when motorized ships showed up. We don't think about it now, but the revolutionary thing about machine driven ships is that they were reliable like oar driven ones yet mostly automated like sail driven ones.

By Vincenzo — On Nov 23, 2014

The major drawback of galleons, of course, is that they were rather useless unless there was enough wind to keep the ships sailing along. That is why you see large, complex sails systems. It took quite a bit of wind power to move those ships and designers came up with ways to capture as much of a breeze as possible.

Fortunately, ships rarely had to deal with no wind and such periods rarely lasted long. Still, it must have been awful to have been dead in the water without a breeze in sight. Scary stuff.

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