Wanna be a sailor, an explorer, maybe just a deckhand?

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

Touring the Nina and the Pinta, replicas of two of Christopher Columbus’s famous ships, made a disbeliever out of me. I walked across the gangplank of the tiny boat –the Nina, 65 feet long and 18 wide — that once held 25 crew members, a month’s supply of live animals to butcher, dried food, fresh vegetables and fruits, plus drinking water; and I questioned: How could she have possibly traveled across a wide and wild ocean with all this stuff and so many people on her back in search of something that was not there?

The Nina did this not once, but three times. She was also the sole surviving ship of the West Indies hurricane of 1495, and from that natural disaster returned to Spain with 120 refugees!

Reincarnations of this tiny, hardy ship and her sister, the Pinta, now sail on, traveling the Western Hemisphere on the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal, along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, through the inland waterways of the Mississippi River System and the St. Lawrence Seaway for 11 months of each year, stopping in ports along the way. They have traveled the Tombigbee Waterway in Alabama to the Ohio River, to the Mississippi as far north as Hudson, Wisconsin. They have followed the Arkansas River into the state of Oklahoma as far as Muskogee.

They crew only six or seven on each boat these days. Rather than live animals in the hold, the modern caravels are equipped with a galley, but like the long-ago sailors, the 21st-century salts sleep and eat topside. Because they’re always near a port, they can carry fewer foodstuffs than Columbus had to. And he, admiral of all trips west from Europe, has been the only one ever to sleep below decks, in what was called captain’s quarters.

The historically replicated pretty wooden Nina was built as the originals were — by hand, using only adzes, axes, hand saws and chisels on naturally shaped timbers, these from Brazil — by an American maritime historian, John Sarsfield. When he learned there were Portuguese shipbuilders in Bahia, Brazil who still used the designs and construction of 15th-century boats, he signed them up to fashion the first accurate copy of the Nina. In 1991, two and a half years after start, the 20 Portuguese-Brazilian shipbuilders launched an exact replica of the ship that in 33 days during the year 1492 brought Columbus to what he thought was the Orient and seven months later returned him to Spain.

The Nina drafts a mere seven feet, carries about 2,000 square feet of sail and weighs 80 tons; she’s a cumbersome-looking lady, handsome but a bit broad in the beam, not nearly as sleek but about as big as a rich man’s yacht today. To us, she is what you want to call a boat, not a ship. But in the day, a caravel was the speediest ship of choice for that period now called the Age of Discovery.

Columbus used a quadrant and a compass to sail the ocean blue; today’s captain Stephen Sanger must abide by Coast Guard regulations, so he gets to use a multitude of up-to-date navigational and communication devices to guide him. The crew that mans and womans the vessels are all volunteers from the States and the Caribbean. The Columbus Foundation is always looking for crew. One of the current mates told me about a woman he worked with onboard, an 83-year-old gal who had been crewing for 12 years. So, sign up (www.ninapinta.org), whoever you are, whatever your age, you who long for adventure and the wind through your hair on the bounding main.

The Nina was given the moniker “the woman with a past” because she survived 25,000 miles on the high seas, which included her three trips to the New World; and because she escaped from capture by pirates near Sardinia, Italy. She was last heard of making a trip to the Pearl Coast (at that time the area around the island of Trinidad off Venezuela) in 1501. Her demise is unknown. Perhaps there was no death of the old girl at all, and she is a ghost ship of seafaring lore, sailing smooth waters now, just over the horizon from the inquisitive eye of the spyglass.

Even in the Middle Border of Iowa, you might catch her latest alter ego on the Mississippi, motoring upriver, the 20th-century Nina, a hint of salty adventure in her, an eerie vision of half a millennium ago.

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