16TH CENTURY Spanish EXPLORATION VESSELS used By the fleets Of Narvaez/Vaca, Soto, and Luna


The early 16th century woodcut at left depicts the types of vessels used by the Spanish in their exploration of the New World, from 1492 until the late 1500s. The fleets that supported the Narvaez, Soto and Luna expeditions used these vessels.

16th century woodcut taken ftom Winsor

History does not tell us much about the ships of Narvaez. We only know that there were five vessels in all and that one was a brigantine. The others were just referred to as "vessels." Likely, the vessels were naos (merchant ships) since galleons (heavily armed freighters/transports) were usually mentioned as such and often named. For instance, Hernando de Sotos ships consisted of 7 large galleons, the San Christobal (800 tons); Magdalena (800 tons); Concepcion (500+ tons); Buena Fortuna (500+ tons); San Juan (under 500 tons); Santa Barbara (under 500 tons); and San Anton (under 500 tons); 1 caravel, and 2 brigantines. After Sotos men and equipment were unloaded, we hear very little about the armada that supported him. We know that they sailed along the coastline of the Gulf searching for the army and probably waited many months in the Bay of Ochuse, but we do not know what became of them.

The San Juan may have been used later in the Luna expedition, but it is unlikely that it could survive 32 years. It was probably a new vessel, with the same name, that went with Luna. Lunas ships (12-15 vessels) consisted of 2 galleons, the San Juan and Andonguin, 5 naos, 1 caravel, 3 barks, 2 brigantines, and 2 frigates. Lunas original armada consisted of probably twelve ships. Two were large galleons called the San Juan and Andonquin. The latter perished in the hurricane while the former was dispatched to Cuba and escaped the storm. Five of the ships were merchant class naos. These craft were similar to caravels but wider of beam in order to carry more supplies and people. No names were given them in the records. However, they were called navios de gavia (ships with main topsails) which means that they carried at least two sails on the mainmast and were larger than caravels.

One craft was a swift, highly seaworthy caravel, the most trustworthy of Spanish sailing vessels. Three were one hundred-ton barks. Each had been constructed with three artillery pieces designed to fend off native canoes. Lastly, there was a fast frigate used for the purposes of scouting and delivering messages. After the hurricane, Luna had two brigantines constructed. These were probably the first ships built in the Southeast. They would later be used to evacuate the settlement. Unless otherwise noted, the following illustrations are adapted from an article by Roger C. Smith entitled, "Early Shipping in Pensacola, 1559-1561" from the book, The Columbus Legacy in Pensacola, edited by Virginia Parks (1992). 

A frigate (fragata) was a very small and fast galley-like vessel (similar to but smaller than a brigantine). It was an open and undecked longboat with six to twelve rowing benches and one or more masts. A Florida frigate used large sails and was very fast which made it ideal as a message carrier and scout.  



A brigantine (bergantin) was also a galley-like vessel (a little bigger than a frigate) but was a partially decked, flat-bottomed longboat with oars and sails. Often English speaking writers refer to it as a pinnace. It was primarily used as a military marine craft to explore rivers and shallow coastal waters. It carried an approximate crew of six sailors and around twenty-two soldiers who manned the oars. A brigantine could carry both soldiers and horses.  

A bark (barca) was an open coastal vessel used primarily for merchant and fishing purposes designed to operate in shallow water with large cargoes under sail or oar. Lunas barks were specially designed sailing vessels used for bay and river navigation and for defense against native canoes. The ones that accompanied Luna were built specifically under Viceroy Velascos direction. Each 100 hundred-ton bark was capable of carrying one hundred men and three pieces of artillery.


A caravel was a very seaworthy, highly responsive, shallow-drafted vessel (150-300 tons). Although lacking in cargo capacity, this sleek vessel allowed its crew to ride over heavy seas with great confidence. It was square-rigged on fore and main masts, but used a lateen sail on the mizzen to help in tacking and coming about maneuvers. It was so maneuverable that it could easily explore shallow bays and the mouths of rivers. The caravel that survived the Ochuse hurricane may have been the craft that was driven ashore totally intact. The Nina and Pinta were caravels in the fleet of Columbus which were captained by the Pinzon brothers. 

A nao was a merchant ship (200-600 tons) rigged similar to a caravel but resembling a galleon in profile. It was much wider in the beam, which allowed it to carry more people, cargo, and, if needed, cannon for defense. It carried square fore and mainsails and lateen mizzens. Its forward masts often sported topsails, and a crows nest, and its bowsprits were fitted with spritsails. This full-rigged ship was self-sufficient and seaworthy and by the time of Luna, made up the bulk of Spains maritime commercial fleet.

Nao drawing (above) adapted from a cross-section of a 16th century, 400-ton vessel, after Etayo 1971).

    It could carry large quantity of arms and cargo without sacrificing speed or defensive strength. The Santa Maria, the flagship of the Columbus fleet, was a nao.  

A galleon was a heavily armed freighter that offered speed and security to Spain and her allies. It was designed to combine the cargo capacity of a heavy, round ship (like the nao) with the swiftness of an ocean-going caravel. Some worked better than others did. An early galleon was more like a heavily armed transport ship (300-600 tons). As Spains wealth grew from her New Spain conquests, a need for greater cargo capacity and security arose. The galleon grew in size until it was tipping the scales at 1,200 tons. These heavily armed ships transported tremendous amounts of treasure back to Spain, and the admiralty figured that the biggest treasure demanded the greatest firepower. However, a sixteenth century galleon tended to be top-heavy in storms, especially when overloaded, making it easy to capsize. And, even though designed for swiftness, a fully loaded galleon could usually only manage 4 to 5 knots in ideal weather. This lack of speed and vulnerability to bad weather made the galleon susceptible to the caravels of pirates and shipwreck by storm. A very good example of this tendency to capsize was well illustrated during the Spanish Armadas visit to the English Channel. Even though the English fleet, directed by Sir Francis Drake, reeked havoc with their ultra-swift vessels on a few of the great galleons, it was a freak mid-summer gale, not the English, fleet that destroyed the armada.

The State of Florida is presently continuing to excavate and research what appears to be a 16th century nao-type vessel (400 tons?) from Pensacola Bay, Florida. This important archeological discovery strongly suggests that Pensacola Bay may be the Bay of Ochuse, especially if this ship is one of Lunas fleet.

The Spanish Armada under sail before the gale (from The Sailing Ship, by Hartog and Spier).

However, many Spanish ships sailed the waters of the Gulf during the 16th century, and many were lost in storms, including those of Narvaez, Luna, and Soto.The single Pensacola Bay shipwreck may or may not be from the Luna fleet and Pensacola Bay may or may not be Ochuse Bay. More archeological investigation is needed to locate the Luna shipwrecks and the Luna settlement of Santa Maria. Somewhere in the Bay of Ochuse lay eight vessels: 1 galleon, 5 naos, and 2 barks. Is the Pensacola Bay shipwreck a nao, galleon, or caravel? To date the evidence points toward a nao. But where are the remains of the other 7 vessels? More archeological investigations are needed before it can be stated with certainty that any one bay on the northern Gulf Coast is the Bay of Ochuse. PAL is conducting surveys in several bays along the northern Gulf Coast searching for Lunas settlement and shipwrecks.  




A cross-section of a 16th century Spanish galleon






 Back To The Main Page