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Whilst a galley is usually known as an oared vessel it was usually only during battle, whilst negotiating confined spaces, or in unfavourable conditions that it did not use at least one sail for any but the shortest voyages. Exceptions have been ceremonial craft and certain vessels used on inland waterways.
Traditionally the galley was a slim, low, agile, oared warship of limited stability and seaworthiness because of its low freeboard. The ship itself was a weapon – from earliest times the prow of the galley consisted of a bronze or iron ram. It was essentially a ship used in the relatively sheltered waters of the Mediterranean as it was completely unsuitable for the rougher Atlantic conditions.
Fore-runners of the galley were the Greek “pentacoster’’ and “trier” (or trireme) and the Roman trireme with its “crow” (corvus). The Phoenicians also used oared warships. The pinnacle of its development came in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance period when all the Mediterranean powers had great fleets of single-banked galleys, usually with three men to an oar, which could be up to 12 metres long.
The decline of the galley came with the improvement in naval armaments and the corresponding development of large sail-powered warships – virtually floating artillery platforms which also, with improvements to rigging and hull design, became faster than galleys over any sort of distance, or in all but the gentlest of conditions. The last major battle fought between two fleets consisting solely of galleys was at Lepanto in 1571. (The first major engagements between fleets of sailing ships involved the Spanish Armada 17 years later.)
By the first years of the 19th century even the corsairs and other pirates of the Barbary coast were using fast sail-powered ships.