caravel (kărˈəvĕlˌ) [key] or carvel kärˈvəl, three-masted sailing vessel, generally square-rigged with the aftermast lateen-rigged. It had a roundish hull with a high bow and stern. The term "carvel-built" (see boat) was derived from its method of construction. A change from bulkier ships to caravels, with their small displacement, enabled the Portuguese in the 15th cent. to take the lead among Western nations in exploring the African coast; the caravel thereafter was of primary importance in the era of expansion and exploration. Columbus's flagship, the Santa María, was a typical caravel.
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