Christopher Columbus & Ships

Christopher Columbus changed the history of the world when he crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1492 and discovered the islands of the West Indies. He was trying to find a westward maritime route to the Maria, was wrecked off Haiti, the most valuable ships in the little fleet which made the first Atlantic crossing in 1492 were Pinta and Nina, the two caravels. Both returned safety to Spain.

The caravel was a small, seaworthy type of ship which proved its worth in Portugal’s voyages of exploration down the west African coast from about 1425. Normally lateen-rigged, the caravel could be converted to square rig for making long ocean runs before the wind. Nina was so converted by Columbus before the Atlantic crossing of 1492.

Caravels were particularly useful for venturing into shallow or dangerous waters where bigger ships could not go. Their modest size meant that on long voyages the company of a bigger ship was needed, to carry enough supplies for the crew members. Santa Maria served this purpose in 1492 until she was wrecked off the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti). A real veteran, Nina made at least four successful Atlantic crossings between 1492 and 1500.

By the late fifteenth century , navigating aids were still primitive, but enough for long out-and-return voyages to be made. The magnetic compass indicated the ship’s heading; the astrolabe, adopted from the Arabs, measured the ship’s north-south position.