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The galleass (known as a "mahon" in Turkey) developed from large merchant galleys. Converted for military use they were higher, larger and slower than regular ("light") galleys. They had up to 32 oars, each worked by up to 5 men. They usually had three masts and a forecastle and aftcastle. Much effort was made in Venice to make these galleasses as fast as possible to compete with regular galleys. The gun-deck usually ran over the rowers' heads, but there are also pictures showing the opposite arrangement.

Galleasses usually carried more sails than true galleys, and were far deadlier; a galley caught broadside lay all but helpless, since coming broadside to a galleass, as with a ship of the line, exposed an attacker to her gunfire. The galleass exemplified an intermediate type between the galley and the true man-of-war. Relatively few galleasses were built — one disadvantage was that, being more reliant on sails, their position at the front of the galley line at the start of a battle could not be guaranteed — but they were used at the Battle of Lepanto (7 October 1571), their firepower helping to win victory for the Christian fleet, and some sufficiently seaworthy galleasses accompanied the Spanish Armada in 1588 (e.g. La Girona). In the 15th century a type of light galleass, called the frigate, was built in southern European countries to answer the increasing challenge posed by the north African based Barbary pirates in their fast galleys.

The English 16th century galleass Antelope. The oar ports are located below the row of gun ports. Illustration from the Anthony Roll, 1546.

The galleass was a popular type of vessel for England's Henry VIII, who had more than a dozen constructed for the English Navy during the 1530s and 1540s for his wars with the French. These were 4-masted vessels with a few heavy guns interspersed with the row ports on the lower deck of these vessels. By 1549 the remaining galleasses had their oars removed, and were reclassed as "ships" rather than galleasses in that year, becoming pure sailing vessels. Most of the survivors were rebuilt as true galleons in the 1550s.

In the Mediterranean, with its shallower waters, less dangerous weather and fickle winds, both galleasses and galleys continued in use, particularly in Venice and Turkey (Ottoman Empire), long after they became obsolete elsewhere. Later, "round ships" and galleasses were replaced by galleons and ships of the line which originated in Atlantic Europe. The first Venetian ship of the line was built in 1660.

In the North Sea and western Baltic, the term refers to small commercial vessels similar to a flat-sterned herring Buss.

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