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by Gary and Helen Blankenship - Tallahassee, Florida - USA
Nina, on the left, and Pinta, at the dock in St. Marks, Florida, on a grey February day.
Stern view has a little better light. I originally thought both boats had four masts, but now I think Pinta's aft spar is a flagpole; at least no sail is set on it and I couldn't find any pics on the Internet showing a sail there.

Standing on the traditionally planked deck, it seemed a blast of megabytes and pixels were swirling in an unseen, unfelt gale. Smart phones and digital cameras were everywhere; 'selfies' by the capstan on the foredeck, closeups of the giant wooden thimbles on the lower end of the mast stays, shots of the aft masts, with their huge, boomless lateen sails.

The curious, in jackets, t-shirts and bright colors, flowed over the decks of the two black-hulled ships, the most colorful bits on a day when the sun only peeped through the clouds. They waited, sometimes two or three hours in line, for a chance to see these two replicas of history, traditionally constructed presentations of the Nina and Pinta, two of the three ships Christopher Columbus sailed on his discovery voyage to the New World.

The ships were in St. Marks, Florida, about 30 miles south of Tallahassee. It was one of their last stops in the Gulf of Mexico before they were scheduled to head to the East Coast of the U. S. this spring and summer. They were in town for two weekends. I went on the last Saturday, figuring there would be a few people wandering over the decks. Oops. There was a line stretching down the street, almost out of sight. Sheriff's deputies were helping control the traffic and crowds. It was obvious it would take at least two hours in line to get aboard.

So I came back at the 9 am opening the next morning and got on after a short delay. For the price of admission, ($8 adults, $7 seniors, and about half that for kids), you get a group tour of the Nina, the smaller of the two vessels. Then you're free to wander at will on the larger Pinta for as long as you like. My tour was conducted by Gus Kodros, first mate of the Nina and who has been in the crew for two years.

Walking to the Pinta (Nina is on the other side) to begin the guided tour).
The wooden capstan in the bow, the only winch on the boats.
The wooden pawl that checks the capstan when it's worked.

He started on the foredeck, with an explanation of how the capstan worked. It was the only "winch" on board so any line that needed extra muscle - halyards, anchor lines, etc - would be led to it. He pointed to the below decks hatch and noted that while the crew quarters are now there, in Colombus' day, the crew lived on deck. Below deck were stores, including live pigs, goats, and chickens to be consumed during the voyage. The youngest member of the crew, which could be a boy as young as 10 or 11, would be tasked with tending the livestock and cleaning up below.

The captain did merit a private cabin, the only such accommodations on board. It was under the covered stern deck and had a whopping four feet of headroom. The entry hatch is reminiscent of a brig.

The entrance to the captain's quarters on Nina.

The hulls are black, Kodros explained, because in 1492 the ships would have been covered in sticky, black, flammable pine tar to help in waterproofing and fighting hull-eating worms. The 65-foot Nina displaces 75 tons and carries 20 tons of ballast stones. (Pinta is 85 feet and 101 tons. The third ship of Columbus' fleet and the largest, the Santa Maria, has not been rebuilt. It was wrecked on Columbus' initial voyage, forcing him to leave some of his crew before returning to Europe. They had disappeared when he returned on his second voyage.) The rudder extends seven feet into the water and is steered with a giant, deck sweeping tiller. Kodros noted that wheel steering had not been invented in Columbus' time.

Nina's impressive tiller. Long enough to be handled by one person. This covered stern deck was the primary shelter for the crew.
A beefy tiller and rudder joint.
Some period details: a fender made of scrap rope. A sample of the ballast stone stored in the bilge, and the sea quadrant used for navigation.

Nor had the modern sextant. Navigation was done with a precursor, the sea quadrant. Since longitude could not be determined without accurate time, ships ran down their latitudes, determined by the North Star..

After the formal tour, Kodros graciously spent some time answering questions about the two ships. They are owned by the Columbus Foundation, which is based in the British Virgin Islands. The original goal was to build the vessels to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus' 1492 original voyage. At first, only enough money could be raised to build the Nina and construction started in 1988 in Valencia, Brazil, using traditional techniques and only hand tools. John Patrick Sarsfield, an American engineer, marine historian, and expert on caravels, was hired to oversee the project. He was tragically killed in a car accident in Brazil in 1990, a year before Nina was completed. The Pinta was completed in 2005 with money raised by Nina's tours.

Welcome aboard
John Patrick Sarsfield
History of the original Pinta

Complete details are on the foundations website,

Both ships are caravels, the workhorse vessel of the 16th century Mediterranean. (The Santa Maria, according to the foundation's website, was a larger "nao" and Columbus disliked its sailing qualities, considering it slow.)

Kodros said Columbus was a part owner of the Nina, and it accompanied him on all his New World voyages. Pinta appears in records only on Columbus' first voyage, and then she disappears.

Obviously, no detailed plans exist for either ship. Kodros said the builders took descriptions of capacity and other factors from surviving accounts and then looked at ship plans that met those specifications. The new Pinta is a bit larger than the original.

"They knew the basic designs and they knew the capacities," he said.

The boats were constructed of Brazilian Ironwood and Kodros fetched a piece as an example. Suffice to say, much heavier than oak and if you get hit with a piece you'll be down for a while. The internet says the wood, which is also highly rot resistant, weighs 66 pounds a cubic foot. That's heavier than water.

And yes, the ships sail. "We try to sail if we can," Kodros said.

Looking aft on Pinta.

Coming from Gulf Shores, Alabama, the ships sailed the first day but were forced to turn on their motors for the last two days. (Yes, the boats have motors; it's unlikely they would be allowed away from the dock without them.) Kodros said the boats go well off the wind. Upwind... well, not so much.

Looking around the boat, a lot of smart choices have been made. While the setup is traditional, the sails, for example, are modern Dacron fabric. Most of the ropes appear to be three-strand Dacron, which look the part but cut down the maintenance. A wood-stocked fisherman-style anchor is on the gunnel on the foredeck. Tucked discretely under the rail below it is a black-painted Danforth type. There are unobtrusive wire stays, parcelled and served, holding up the mainmast. Pictures, posters and exhibits are sensibly placed around the ships to help explain its history and workings and the way of life. And a small ships store is tucked into Pinta's covered stern deck.

Tallahasseans seemed fascinated with the ships. About 2,700 visited the day I first traveled down and gave up because of the long lines. It looked like that number may have been matched the day I made it aboard, as the waiting line was quickly growing when I left. No one seemed to mind the wait to step back 500 years in sailing history.

Kodros understands.

"It's a lot of work, but it's a lot of fun," he said of his time onboard. 'I signed up for six weeks and here I am two years later. It's an adventure you never forget."

Some more photos to enjoy:

Some of what seems like miles of line used in the standing and running rigging.
Helpful signs and placards abound on both boats.
Looking aft on Nina showing the lateen sails on the two back masts. The two forward masts carry squaresails. Pinta carries two forward squaresails and one aft lateen. Its main carries the only topsail on either boat.
More rigging.
That's a block!
A board showing the knots used on the boats.
Below deck s is definitely not to historical plans - something surely appreciated by the eight-person crews that man each boat.
Columbus' crew on the voyage of discover.
Models of Pinta
The 16th century internet.
Looking forward on Pinta from the raised stern deck. Somehow I think that stairway was more ladder like on the original.
Nina's aft mast, seen from Pinta.
More rigging!
The traditional anchor on the forward hull bulwark. Note the black Danforth type below it stored up against the hull. Also, that stay terminating by the cleat is wire.

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