The Maya economy depended on trading partners, not only in Mesoamerica but across the shining seas that border the Yucatan Peninsula. Large Maya seagoing vessels plied the open seas and ventured across the Caribbean to the islands extending from Cuba to Antigua. Maya sea traders traveled afar and encountered trading partners with valuable resources that could be traded for products unique to the Maya world.
The attraction of long-range trade influenced Maya technicians to expand their capabilities in nautical technology and enabled the design and construction of large, stable seaworthy cargo vessels. The vessels were swiftly propelled over the waves by manpower using paddlers.
Nautical engineering of seagoing vessels is not the stuff of folk tales but their existence was witnessed by the most famous explorer of the New World: Christopher Columbus. On his fourth voyage, Columbus confronted a large Maya sailing vessel and described it “as long as a galley, eight feet wide, with 24 paddlers aboard. The Maya vessel carried cargo and passengers.” Investigation of these vessels including eyewitness reports and examination of artifacts shows that the vessels were constructed from a single log. The craft was a flat-bottomed vessel that averaged eight feet wide and sixty to eighty feet long. The vertical elements, the freeboard extension and other component elements are proven designs of seagoing vessels.
Maya seagoing canoes were used until sail powered and motor driven vessels came into common usage.