Galleons originally came to importance as the protectors of the Spanish treasure fleets. They were initially designed similarly to fifteenth century carracks, which were light, fast vessels that had three or four masts and high, rounded sterns. To the Spanish galleons were added high forecastles and large sterncastles, making them a more unwieldy vessel. The galleons were also designed to carry a large number of passengers as well as cargo, another upgrade destined to slow them down at sea. To make up for this, they were heavily armored and carried many soldiers, but ultimately their slow speed and difficult maneuverability made them an easier target than the Spanish would have preferred. Regardless of how shipwrights built the vessels, galleons invariably had to travel in fleets to assure their safety.
A forecastle is the portion of a ship located ahead of the tallest mast, or mainmast; it generally holds the sailors' quarters. A sterncastle (or aft-castle) is the upper portion of the sailing deck located behind a short mast, or mizzenmast. In pirate times, it was generally used for guns and as an onboard “fortress” from which pirates could defend the ship if necessary.
When the English privateers arrived on the pirate scene in the sixteenth century, they boasted their own style of galleon. Moving back toward the faster, lighter carracks, the English galleons were quicker and more maneuverable than their Spanish counterparts. They were designed to be sleeker, with lowered forecastles and a longer hull. The longer and lower hull made the vessel much more stable in the water, as did the squared-off stern on the ship. Each galleon had three to five masts, and they were powered entirely by sail. Unlike the carracks, which tended to weigh around 1,000 tons, these galleons were closer to 500 tons. They were designed to be heavily armed, often with cannons mounted on wheels for ease of aim, and became not only the favored ship of English privateers but the flagships of the Royal Navy as well.
Masts and Sails
A ship's masts are the poles that hold the sails, and they're named according to their position, moving from front to back, or bow to stern. Until the twentieth century, masts were made of spars, round poles constructed from straight tree trunks. For taller masts, two or three spars would be bound together. The foremast comes first, followed by the mainmast, which as the tallest mast was usually located near the center of the vessel. The mizzenmast is typically the shortest mast, and in all but the largest sailing ships is the mast farthest from the bow. Each mast would be rigged with sails designed to catch the wind and move the ship.
Different types of rigging, or ropes and lashings, would be used for different purposes, and masts on the same ship could have different types of rigging. Square-rigged sails are rectangular sails draped from horizontal bars called yards, or yardarms, which are attached to the mast. If a vessel was fore-and-aft rigged it meant the sails were lined up with the hull, rather than being set at right angles to the hull as when they were square-rigged. When a ship was lanteen-rigged, it had triangular sails that were set on a yardarm at a forty-five-degree angle to the mast.