Columbus's Sailing Ships

On August 3, 1492, Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain with
three small Spanish sailing ships,the Pinta, the Nia, and the Santa Mara,
on a voyagethat eventually led him to America.

No one really knows what any of Columbus's three ships really looked like for sure.
But we do know what similar ships looked like during the 1400's and 1500's.
Examine the two diagrams below to learn more about Columbus's ships.


The Santa Maria was a nao, the flagship of the Columbus fleet. It was a merchant ship, between 200-600 tons. The boat's length was 75 feet with a wide beam, 25 feet. This allowed it to carry more people and cargo. She had a deep draft, 6 feet. The vessel had three masts, a mainmast, a foremast, and a mizzenmast. Five sails altogether were attached to these masts. Each mast carried one large sail. The foresail and mainsail were square; the sail on the mizzen was a triangular sail known as a lateen mizzen. The ship had a smaller topsail on the mainmast above the mainsail and on the foremast above the foresail. In addition, the ship carried a small square sail, a spritsail, on the bowsprit. In the diagram above, the spritsail cannot be seen. Each sail was attached to a long wooden pole, a yard, which spread the sail out across the top and held it open. The Santa Maria also had a crows nest on the mainmast. It had a raised stern. There was a forecastle in the bow of the ship. Most of the force used to drive this ship came from the largest mainsail. The other sails were used for "trimming." Though many sailors believed that the Santa Maria was a fine ship for her day, Columbus was not so impressed. He did not think it was a ship fit for discovery. Because of the deep draft, the vessel was not suited for sailing near reefs and shallow island waters. In fact, the craft ran aground off Hispaniola and had to be abandoned.

Question: Can you find 3 synonyms for the word "ship" in the description above?
(You need to find a word that means the same as ship--not a word that is a type of ship.)

The Santa Maria was a tub, big and awkward, and it was not able to go near the coastline.But it did have the advantage of being able to carry a lot of cargo, and it was able to stand up well in heavy storms.


These two ships in the fleet of Columbus were known as caravels. A caravel had a shallower draft than a nao, so it could move around in the water more easily. A caravel was150-300 tons. It did not have much cargo space, but it was able to sail over difficult waters easily. It was square-rigged on its foremasts and mainmasts, but used a lateen sail on the mizzen to help in tacking. It was so easy to control that sailors could easily explore shallow bays and the mouths of rivers. A caravel could hold about twenty crew members. They usually slept on the deck and would go below only if the weather was bad. Pinta was a caravel, a smaller, lighter, and faster ship than the tubby Santa Maria. She probably had three masts, and most likely carried sails like those of Santa Maria, except for the topsail, and perhaps the spritsail.

Square or Lateen Rigging of Sails?

The terms, square and lateen rigging refers to the shape of a ship's sails. The lateen sail is triangular in shape. Columbus choose to square rig all three vessels. Such a choice guessed that the winds blowing the vessels westward would be of a constant unchanging direction. This turned out to be the case for the voyage to the New World. A lateen rigging gives a sailing vessel greater maneuvering ability in varying wind directions.

How fast did they go?

As you can guess, the speed of a sailing vessel depends on the speed of the wind. Over several days, ships of Columbus's time would average a little less than 4 knots. Top speed for the vessels was about 8 knots. These speeds were quite typical for ships at this time. Such a ship would cover about 90 or 100 miles in a day. Of the three ships on the first voyage, the Santa Maria was the slowest, and the Pinta was the fastest.

Columbus' ships covered approximately 150 miles a day. His seafaring instincts were extraordinary. His crews used a compass for direction and a chip log and reel to measure speed. A sailor counted how many knots were let off the reel in a certain amount of time. The sailors could figure the distance they had traveled by multiplying their speed by the amount of time. Columbus, however, relied on dead reckoning, meaning he used his experience, intuition, observations, and guesswork to determine his ships' positions.


Columbus' crew worked in four-hour shifts. Their duties included pumping bilge, cleaning the deck, working the sails, and checking the ropes and cargo. When they were off duty, they slept anywhere they could find space. Columbus himself often spent days without sleep. Only the captain had private quarters. The sailors' lives were hard, and they often died from disease, hunger, and thirst. Religion was the central focus of their lives. Every day began with prayers and hymns and ended with religious services in the evenings. The crew received one hot meal a day cooked over an open fire in a sandbox on deck. Their diet consisted of ship's biscuit, pickled or salted meat, dried peas, cheese, wine, and fresh-caught fish.

1. What food group is missing from the daily diet of these sailors? Go to this website: find out what disease these sailors probably suffered from.
2. The word "quarters" is highlighted above. What do you think it means?

Life on board the Nia in 1492 was not for the light hearted.
When the "Nia" left onany of her three voyages to the New World,
her cargo hold was full of provisions,water, armaments.
There were live animals ranging from horses, cows, pigs, andchickens.
The four-legged animals were suspended in slings as the rolling motion of
the vessel would have easily broken their legs.

Needless to say, there was little room below decks for the 27 or so crew to sleep or cook.
Cooking was done in a fire box located on decks in the bow of the ship.
Sleeping wason the deck and was always uncomfortable as the ship was so loaded with cargo,
her decks were always awash.
A lucky few could sleep on the poop deck or find
a coil of rope to sleep on to keep them off the deck a foot or so.

Open-ended comparison paragraph:
Write a paragraph comparing a day in your life to a day in the life of one of the sailors on Columbus's ship.
You may begin with this topic sentence:
There are many differences between my life today and a sailor's life in 1492.
After your topic sentence, include at least 3 detail sentences and closing sentence.

Open-ended compare and contrast paragraphs:
Compare= tell what is the same (similarities)
Contrast=tell what is different (differences)
For this activity you must write 2 paragraphs.\
Paragraph #1 includes: Topic Sentence
3 Detail sentences that compare
Paragraph #2 includes: Topic Sentence
3 Detail sentences that contrast
A closing sentence

Activity: Examine the pictures below of caravels and naos drawn or recreated to look like the Nina, Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Then try to draw any one of the ships used by Columbus. Copy and paste one of the pictures from this page into Paint. Move the picture to the side of the page to help you with your drawing.

Replica of Columbus's ship, the Santa Maria, passing by the Kennedy Space Center
at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Replicas of the Pinta and Santa Maria, built for the 1992
quincentennial. Note the tiny topsail on Santa Maria.