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Among the ships used by the Spanish explorers in the 16th Century were the Carracks, known in Spain as “naos”, the Caravels, and the Galleons, which were off-springs of the earlier naos and caravels. Naos had great capacity for storing cargo, and were used both as flagships and storage ships. Caravels, on the other hand, were lighter ships with shallower draughts, and were considered the fastest of the large sailing vessels of the era. Galleons were the longest and most streamlined of the ships, and typically carried a decorated balcony, and larger amounts of sail than the earlier ships. Galleons were used for exploration as well as for commerce and warfare.


Sailors lived in close quarters and found that areas below decks were inappropriate for most human habitation. Sleeping was most often accomplished on mats provided by the sailors themselves on any available space on the top deck that they could find. One-third of the crew was on watch throughout the night, which did allow some increase in the space available, but the sleeping crew could easily be forced to move when sails were rearranged or for other adjustments on board.

“On the armada of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in 1568”, the menu included the following for each of the rank and file sailors: One and one half pounds of biscuit, one liter of wine, one liter of water, horse beans, chick peas, rice, oil, salt meat or pork and/or cheese. Sailors were provided three meals per day, apportioned from these provisions, and meals were often more available to the sailors on board ships than they had been when the men lived on dry land (Perez-Mallaina, p. 140). Sailors also harvested fish from the ocean for their meals. Violence between personnel could occur regarding the provisions available. Officers, of course, were provided a more interesting and varied diet.

Clothing of the rank and file sailors was quite limited, and often included only two shirts and two pairs of trousers, a long and a short jacket, one pair of shoes, and a sea cape (Perez-Mallaina, p. 149).

When sailors fell ill, there were no physicians on board any but the ships of the commanders of the fleet. Barbers often were used as lay doctors, and some were trained to bleed the sick crew members, which was associated with many deaths. Diets consisting of broths, chicken and white biscuits were provided to assist in the recovery of health, and frequently were more therapeutic than was the work of the barber/physician. Many illnesses were the results of overuse of alcohol products or were the effects of wounds from battles at sea.


Among the rank and file of the ships were three levels of personnel, including pages, apprentices and sailors. Pages were young children, assigned to the work at eight to ten years of age. They could remain in these positions throughout their adolescence. Some pages served only one master on board, who was generally a person who had a relationship with the page’s family or guardians. Such pages could be groomed for apprenticeships as they worked for their masters. The majority of pages, however, were at the beck and call of any and all of the ship’s crew, and were responsible for the most menial of tasks. Apprentices were to be trained to become sailors on board their ships, but often were treated as scapegoats by the sailors and officers on board. Upon completion of their apprenticeship, at about twenty years of age, they were awarded documents of certification as sailors.

Among the sailor’s tasks included handling the helm, handling the sounding line, which determined water’s depth and thereby the safety of the ship, and handling the rigging of the ship. More educated sailors learned to use charts and attended schools in which they could learn to be ship’s pilots. Among the more specialized members of the crew were the gunners, who managed the cannons, grenades, and other projectiles on board. Several levels of officer oversaw the functions on board.


Sailors were on-call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If repairs were needed, the captain needed to be able to call on any and all persons on board, who were used to repair sails and mast, man the bilge pumps below decks, or even to leave the ship in order to patch holes in the ship’s sides with wood or sheets of lead that were nailed to the ship. Some were designated as divers who could accomplish these repairs, at great personal risk, under roiling water.


Many Spanish ships carried large cargo, the weight of which the ship depended upon for proper sailing. If the cargo were less fulsome than the hold allowed, heavy stones would be stowed in order to compensate for the weight that was not available. Various sizes of bales and crates were stacked in the hold on top of one another, with the heavier containers below the lighter ones. Ballast was placed underneath the containers, and cloth or lighter bundles filled the spaces in order to avoid shifting of the cargo materials.


Cannons became more common on ships in the second half of the 16th Century. In addition, various hand-thrown projectiles, some utilizing gunpowder or hot tar, and some including lime in order to blind their victims, were used, along with muskets, swords, crossbows, etc.


Playing games, telling stories or chatting with peers, singing songs, and reading were the most common forms of entertainment available to the sailors on Spanish ships. Various games of chance with cards and dice, although prohibited by law, were common to all sailors. Books were difficult to obtain, but were read by crew member when possible. Novels were available and were popular among the literate sailors.

To learn more about life on board ship in the sixteenth century, click on the links below:

Ships in the Age of Discovery

"Life at sea in the age of sail," Royal Museum Greenwich, London

History of the Caravel


Perez-Mallaina, Pablo E. Spain’s Men of the Sea – Daily Life on the Indies Fleets in the Sixteenth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

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