Cape Girardeau, MO-- Two full-sized working replicas of Christopher Columbus’ ships are sailing from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. The caravels are the twenty-five year project of The Columbus Foundation, an organization focused on the historical importance of Columbus’ voyages to the New World.
“When people come aboard our ships, we’re not emphasizing Columbus the man,” says Pinta crew member Tom Vaeth. “We built these ships in recognition of what Columbus started - the Age of Discovery. Balboa, De Soto, Magellan, Ponce de Leon and even Henry Hudson up in my area would not have come over without Columbus’ first voyage on this ship. This is the most famous style of caravel in history and it changed with world. We want to share how this ship sails, how it handles, and what life was like onboard for the crew.”
Vaeth joined the crew of the Pinta over two years ago from the Hudson River Valley, New York.
“Three weeks turned into two months. I came back the next summer and have been on board ever since.” Prior to joining the crew, Vaeth was taking college courses and working at a gas station. “I didn’t even know sailing like this was an option,” he says. “Then this opportunity presented itself to get out of my corner of the country. I now get to see 30-40 cities and I just finished sailing the Loop this summer. For me, it’s all about the adventure.”
Adventure is what caravels were built for. Their advantages were speed, a shallow draught, and manoeuvrability, plus the fact that they were good sailing ships. The Niña, which is rigged as a Caravela Redonda, has square sails on the main and foremast for sailing downwind, and lateen sails on the mizzen masts.
In 1986, Captain Morgan P. Sanger established the Columbus Foundation in the British Virgin Islands to raise money to build Columbus’ three most famous ships. They soon discovered all models, replicas, and reproductions to date were based on someone’s interpretation of the ships, not the actual ships themselves.
Two years of research later, reality caught up with this Quixote-esqe project. The Foundation decided to move ahead with only one of the three ships -- the Niña-- and hired John Patrick Sarsfield for the design. Sarsfield, an expert on Portuguese caravels and an engineer, lived in Brazil and saw the 15th-Century technique for shipbuilding still in practice. After years of learning the secrets of Mediterranean Whole Moulding, Sarsfield chose the Brazilian location for building the Niña.
“In December of 1991, the Niña left the banks of the Rio Uno in Valenca, Brazil rigged as a four-master,” according to the Foundation’s documents. “It carried a crew of eleven and arrived in Puntarenas, Costa Rica on January 23rd, 1992 to take part in the film 1492 directed by Ridley Scott and starring Gerard Depardieu. Its voyage of over 4,000 miles represents the first time that a discovery caravel replica has made a successful unescorted open ocean passage of any considerable distance.”
By the early 2000s, the popularity of the Niña allowed for the drafting and building of Columbus’ second ship: the Pinta. It was launched on February 25th, 2005 from the same Brazilian port that so painstakingly crafted the Niña.
Most recently, the ships made their way through the Great Lakes, docking in Wyandotte, Traverse City, Muskegon, and South Haven. More than 2,500 visitors per day toured the ships and Great Lakes residents got a first-hand look at life in 1492. “To see a near perfect example of a type of sailing ship, the caravel, of such clean, sculptured, honest design, that it was produced for upwards of 125 years,” writes Pinta crew member John Malcom. “With its Scandinavian style bow and midsection, and its combination square and lateen rigging, it was probably the best open water sailing vessel of its time - that pivotal time referred to as the Great Age of Discovery.”
“We’ll be back in the Great Lakes again in two years,” says Vaeth. “Right now, we’re headed to Florida and then going to work our way back up the rivers, through Ohio and out to Pittsburgh.”
For more information on touring the Niña and Pinta, visit The Columbus Foundation’s website.
Photos courtesy of The Columbus Foundation. Video originally published with the Detroit Free Press story on August 9, 2017.