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How Ships Are Put to Sea During the Spanish Galleon Pacific Trade [Late 16th Century - Maritime History]

Galleons under sail
This is a reproduced illustration that can be seen at the San Diego Galleries in the National Museum of Anthropology. It is taken from the account of Olivier Van Noort, captain of the Dutch ship Mauritius and depicts the battle between the Spanish galleon San Diego (A) and the Mauritius (B). Both European ships used square-rigged sails.

Sail rigs, which refer to the gear above the ship’s deck that are used for vessel propulsion including sails, masts, spars and lines, rarely survive a wrecking event. If they do, these typically light materials quickly deteriorate in the tropics long before archaeologists can examine them. Such is true with the shipwreck of San Diego, sunk in 1600. 

sailing crafts with some manner of fore-and-aft rigging
A tinted engraving depicting vessels at the mouth of Manila Bay from the 1614-1616 voyage of Joris van Spilbergen. In the foreground are Philippine and Asian sailing crafts with some manner of fore-and-aft rigging. From the book Treasures of the San Diego (1997).

Fortunately, there are ample historical texts and images of trans-Pacific voyages during this period to give us a better idea of how ships sailed. The Manila-Acapulco galleons, often built in the Philippines or Mexico based on Spanish designs, were two- or three-masted vessels that used square rigs. This does not refer to shape of the sails which were typically quadrangular. Rather, that the spars that hold the sails are set horizontally and are thus square or perpendicular to the keel of the ship. 

Large European square-rigged ships are at anchor
A 1647 plate of Manila Bay published by the Dutch East India Company. Large European square-rigged ships are at anchor. From the book Treasures of the San Diego (1997).

Square-rigged ships perform particularly well with the wind behind them. Conversely, sailing to a point against the wind is altogether impractical. This is why these trading ships relied on prevailing winds and used easterlies when travelling west or westerlies when travelling east. In ideal conditions when wind and currents cooperated, a Manila-Acapulco galleon from this period might reach a top speed of seven knots (or almost 13 kilometers per hour). 

The masts of square-rigged ships could carry multiple spars and sails, providing more surface area for the wind to drive the vessel forward. The sails could also be more easily reduced if strong winds threatened to break the mast and rip the sails. Multiple masts also distribute the wind’s force on the vessel. However, with more sails, a ship would require more crew to handle them.

As depicted in the illustrations included in Olivier Van Noort’s account of the battle that sunk San Diego, the galleon-warship was a three-masted vessel with the fore and main masts carrying a mainsail and topsail. The ship model on exhibit at the San Diego gallery at the National Museum of Anthropology is based on typical galleon descriptions. Its mast at the stern or rear of the ship carries a triangular mizzen sail that is set fore-and-aft.

Fore-and-aft rigs were common in smaller watercrafts worldwide as they allowed travelling upwind. But it was not until the 18th century that large ocean-crossing traders began using predominantly fore-and-aft rigging.

This month, we will have a chance to see the Spanish training ship Elcano when it sails to the Philippines to commemorate the quincentennial of Magellan’s arrival in the Philippines.

Elcano is a four-masted fore-and-aft schooner barque, or barquentine with square foresails. 

500th anniversary of the Philippine part of the first circumnavigation of the world

500th anniversary of the Philippine part of the first circumnavigation of the world

On 16 March 2021, the country will mark the quincentennial (500th anniversary) of the Philippine part of the first circumnavigation of the world. At 11:00 a.m., the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) will unveil the first of the thirty-four (34) historical markers highlighting the country's part in that achievement of humankind and science: the Suluan Quincentennial Marker in Suluan Island, Guiuan, Eastern Samar. It will coincide with the arrival of the Spanish Navy Training Ship Juan Sebastian Elcano, named after the captain of the 17 remaining crew out of original 245 members of the Armada de Maluco (a.k.a., Magellan-Elcano expedition) who completed the first circumnavigation of the world. 

A meeting procedure between the Philippine Navy and Spanish Navy will take place immediately after the unveiling in Suluan. BRP Apolinario Mabini will be the official navy ship to welcome Juan Sebastian Elcano. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana will represent the Philippine government in the procedure. He will be accompanied by Spanish Ambassador to the Philippines Jorge Moragas. The ship is expected to anchor near Manicani Island, also under the jurisdiction of Guiuan, on the same date at 4pm. A fluvial parade organized by the Municipality of Guiuan afterwards.

Juan Sebastian Elcano has been tracing the route of the first circumnavigation since 2019. Owing to the pandemic, no physical contact will take place between the crew member and those in land.  She will also join the Philippine and Spanish governments in the unveiling of the next historical marker at Homonhon Island, still part of Guiuan, 11am of March 17. The public may still gaze at her from afar via Guiuan Transport Terminal from March 16-18. Minimum health protocols will be strictly implemented by the IATF.

She will leave for Cebu City on March 18. She is expected to pass by the Cebu-Cordoba Link Expressway on March 20 via Mactan Strait. No public event is taking place.

The Radio Television Malacañang - RTVM and the Presidential Communications (Government of the Philippines) will cover the port calls of the Elcano beginning March 16 here on the National Quincentennial Committee, Republic of the Philippines and various government Facebook pages.

Check the map of the Philippine itinerary of the first circumnavigation of the world here.

This 2021, we will commemorate the Philippine part in the achievement of science and humankind in circumnavigating the planet for the first time. These and more are collectively known as the 2021 Quincentennial Commemorations in the Philippines by virtue of Executive Order No. 103 (2020). Know more about the event here: 

🎞 Watch our promotional video 👍 []
🎧 Listen to Quincentennial Soundtrack 🤟[]
📺 Watch our lectures []☝️
🕵️‍♀‍ Quincentennial activities here []

Read more about Elcano’s visit here: "Spanish ship 'Elcano' docks March 16 for 500th year commemoration"

Objects recovered from the San Diego shipwreck are on exhibit at the National Museum of Anthropology, which has opened to the public with tours still suspended. 


Text and poster by NMP-MUCH

©National Museum of the Philippines (2021)

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