Nina: Rediscovering the New World

Article excerpt

A replica sailing ship demonstrates the harsh rigors of transoceanic exploration in the time of Christopher Columbus

In 1986, the Columbus Foundation was formed in the British Virgin Islands to raise money to build the three ships that Christopher Columbus used in his "encounter" with the New World. With the 500th anniversary only six years away, it seemed like an opportune time to encourage interest in such a project. What was not known at the time was that the "quincentennial" would turn out to be such a non-event. Some people saw nothing to celebrate. Instead, they thought that it should be an occasion to protest while pursuing modern political agendas.

The Columbus Foundation wasn't looking for heroes or villains. Theirs was a search for information. There were no authentic pictures of the Pinta, Nina or the Santa Maria, and all of the so-called models, replicas or reproductions that had been built in the past merely represented what some artist, architect, archaeologist, or model ship builder thought they ought to have looked like.

The next two years were spent in research. During that time it became evident that due to money and time constraints it would be possible to build only one replica. It was decided that the Nina would be built. The original Santa Maria, ran aground in Hispaniola and sank on the first voyage. She was a nao, or freighter, and was built in Galicia. She became the flagship because she was the largest of the fleet but Columbus disliked her for her dull sailing qualities, and when she sank he recorded in his journal "...She was very heavy and not suitable for the business of discovery: The least was known about the Pinta, and after the first voyage she disappeared from history without a trace. The Nina, like the Pinta, was a caravel, which was a common trading vessel in use during the Age of Discovery.

Caravels were also used as cargo carriers, warships, patrol boats, and even corsairs (pirate ships). Their advantages were speed, a shallow draught, and maneuverability, plus the fact that they were good sailing ships. The Nina, which is rigged as a Caravela Redonda, has square sails on the main and foremast for sailing downwind, and lateen (triangular) sails on the mizzen masts.

Caravels have always been linked with Portuguese and Spanish explorations and explorers. They were used to chart the Coast of Africa to the Cape of Good Hope by Bartholomew Diaz; they took part in all four of Columbus's voyages; they were used by Vasco de Gama in 1502; in 1519, the caravel Santiago accompanied Magellan's expedition. The Caravel heyday lasted almost a hundred years from the early 1400s to the 1530s. Once Columbus established transatlantic routes, larger cargo vessels as well as warships were required, which paved the way for the development of the galleon.

Columbus changed the Nina's rig to a Caravela Redonda before the first voyage. The Nina was Columbus's favorite. She made the entire first voyage, bringing the admiral safely home. When Columbus had the pick of the whole Merchant Marine on his second voyage he selected her out of 17 ships as his flagship for an exploring voyage to Cuba, and purchased a half share in her. After his return she made an unauthorized voyage from Cadiz to Rome, was captured by a pirate off Sardinia, recaptured by her master and crew and returned to Cadiz in time to sail for Hispaniola early in 1498 as advance guard of Columbus's third voyage. She was lying in Santo Domingo in 1500, and we last heard of her making a trading voyage to the Pearl Coast in 1501. The Nina logged at least 25,000 miles under Columbus's command.

In 1988, the Columbus Foundation hired John Patrick Sarsfield, an American engineer, maritime historian, and expert on Portuguese caravels, to design and construct a replica of the Nina. John had lived in Brazil while working in the Peace Corps, and had learned of an archaic ship building process called Mediterranean Whole Moulding. …