A view across the Ohio River from the deck of the S.V. Nina as she was moored at the Joe’s Crab Shack Dock in Louisville
The things I see:
The Nina and Pinta, the world’s most authentic reproductions of the Christopher Columbus’s ships, are returning to Kentucky. The ships will be in Grand Rivers near Paducah from Aug. 29 to Sept. 9. In September 2012, I was fortunate enough to travel and crew onboard the Nina and Pinta, this is the story of that trip.
The things I see: We should be aware by now that the story taught to us as children about Columbus discovering America isn’t really the case. Evidence suggests the Vikings landed on North American soil in New England around 1000 A.D. The Native Americans came across the polar land bridge thousands of years before that. The continent is named after Vespucci, who didn’t even come as far North as Columbus.
Heading into the early morning fog on the Ohio River from Rising Sun, Ind., for Cincinnati
In my mind, discovery isn’t about who came here first then never bothered to come back or make a detailed effort to explore and advance knowledge of what they found. To discover something you must investigate it, sample it and share it.
So in that vein did Columbus truly discover America? Honestly, no. Columbus never went beyond Cuba (in the direction of North America). There is no doubt, however, that Columbus’s voyages were the impetus for all the other exploration.
Columbus started his fantastic voyage in 1492 with three vessels, the Nina (real name the Santa Clara), the Pinta and the Santa Maria. The Santa Maria was a carrack (basically a barge) and the other two were caravels. The three ships have become iconic examples of engineering, shipbuilding, craftsmanship and sailing ability.
The Santa Maria ran aground off the coast of Haiti on Christmas Day 1492 and was abandoned. It was lost to history at that point. The Nina and the Pinta completed Columbus’s first voyage of the Americas and returned with him to Spain.
After the first voyage the Pinta was likewise never mentioned again. The Nina was later known to be Columbus’s favorite ship and she returned to Hispaniola as the flagship of his advance guard for the second voyage to the Americas. Neither of the ships ever made it to North America.
The notion that neither Columbus nor his ships ever reached America really isn’t a point of interest for those who just want to experience the ships themselves, and seeing replicas of The Nina and The Pinta is what took me to Louisville in September of 2012.
Me staining the bottom rail of the S.V. Nina (Photo courtesy of Valarie Bennett)
The replica ships are floating museums built and operated by the nonprofit Columbus Foundation. The two ships travel all over the navigable waterways of the Western Hemisphere and port in dozens of cities a year giving tours to individuals, school groups and civic groups. The purpose of the ships is to educate the public about the fantastic voyages that Columbus made to bring exploration to the New World and to let people see the ships that brought them here.
I wanted more than a tour of the vessels. I wanted to know why the people who operate, crew them and visit them do so. I contacted the home office of the Columbus Foundation in the British Virgin Islands and secured a spot on the boat.
I sailed (not really sailed, because of Coast Guard regulations) onboard the S.V. Nina from Louisville to Cincinnati. Our trip took four days, and we navigated more than 125 nautical miles of the Ohio River. Due to coast guard regulations dealing with barge traffic, river locks, wind resistance, and water depths the Tall Ships (as they are called) cannot operate under sail. As such the Nina and the Pinta are outfitted with diesel powered engines. The ships can reach speeds of about 7 knots (about 8.5mph).
The Nina is the most authentic replica of a 15th century caravel on the water. She is 65 feet on the beam, and she weighs 73 tons. She carries 35,000-plus pounds of ballast. The Pinta is 85 feet on the beam, and weighs over 100 tons. She is actually about 40 percent larger than her historical original. She is a day-trip vessel, capable of taking parties of 100 on short cruises.
Both ships are 100-percent capable of running under full sail and do so in the open waters. Built in Brazil and home ported in the British Virgin Islands, they have traveled as far away as Costa Rica, and navigated the Panama Canal. They have also navigated the rivers and intercoastal waterways of the United States numerous times.
Fans watching the Nina and Pinta traveling through the locak at the Markland Dam on the Ohio River
When you crew aboard either of these ships, you do everything: relashing the sails, helmsman duties, forward watch, swabbing the decks, restaining the hull … you name it the crew does it. This is an admirable task for many members of the crew, who are all volunteers.
Experience in sailing is not required to volunteer as a crew member, and the people I crewed with were not experienced (or professional) sailors. While all of them had crewed onboard previously, their experience was limited. Captain Kyle himself started out on the Nina as a crew member on the ship’s first voyage in 1991, where she sailed to Costa Rica to participate in the filming of the movie 1492. Her 4,000-mile trek was the first time a replica caravel had made an unescorted voyage of any distance.
Because I have previous naval experience, was put to work right away. I was given the forward watch for most of the journey. Making sure we stayed in the shipping lanes, out of the path of the numerous barges and keeping an eye out for any small craft that might get too close. While in port I put new coats of stain on the bottom rail of the Nina.
My first two days on the ship were awkward, as the ship’s crew had been together previously and had sailed far together on this voyage as well. I was an outsider, not just there to help, but to ask questions, take pictures and pick their brains about the experience. But with tight quarters, and intermingling jobs on deck it does not take long to get in tune with one another and to bond.
We actually got closer faster because we were short crewed; four crewmen (including me) and the captain. There are no showers and you only get a chance to make landfall and take a hotel shower once every three days or so. You must be a people person, ready to answer questions from any direction. If following orders, close quarters, musty smells and outhouses offend you, this is not for you.
Sunset on the horizon heading toward Rising Sun, Ind.
Below decks is cramped, with quarters to accommodate seven to 10 crew members, on bunks about 6 feet long, stacked two high, about 11 inches separating the top and bottom bunks. The galley is about 8 feet by 14 feet with a stove top, microwave, sinks, freezer and fridge. The ship’s cook did well with limited facilities; some of the best fried chicken ever (outside of my mother’s).
The ship has a generator onboard, so there is limited electrical power (again due to Coast Guard regulations). So we were able to have some air conditioning below decks (not much). The head (bathroom) is anything but comfortable, a seat and a light, and not much headroom. I was thankful for a public restroom in port.
While that might seem like roughing it in today’s standards, remember this: The crew of the original Nina was 26 strong. Below decks was reserved for supplies, storage, livestock, and for carrying things back on the return trip. You slept on deck anywhere you could find a place to lay your head.
One of the most inspiring aspects of this journey is the “fan club” mentality of the people who follow the ships’ journeys. People all along the route were pulled over by the side of the road, in areas completely off the beaten path, to take photos and to allow their children to see the ships.
When we stopped for two nights in Rising Sun, Ind., we were met by Barbara Anderson, the owner of Anderson’s Riviera Inn. She had visited the ships two years earlier when they stopped on this voyage, and she wanted to make sure we were well taken care of on this stop. She and other local business owners made sure we had transportation to resupply our stores and access to the local hardware store to get some much-needed equipment to make repairs. Then she made sure we were all given access to several hotel rooms over the course of our two-night stay; we all had at least one night to sleep in a real bed, get a shower and get away from the ships for a while.
The Pinta cruising into port at the Hooter’s Pier, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati in Newport
So is this a ‘rediscovery’ of Columbus and his influence as a historical figure in American history? I don’t know, but I know it is a moment of my history I will always remember. After all how many people can say they crewed aboard a 15th Century Discovery Caravel?
If you would like to volunteer aboard one of the Columbus Foundation vessels click here and fill out a crew application. Make a discovery of your own.
While the Columbus Ships are ported in Grand Rivers, the general public is invited to visit the ships for an onboard self-guided tour. Admission is $8 for adults, $7 for senior citizens and $6 for students 5 to 16. Children 4 and under are free.
The ships are available every day from 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. You do not need a reservation.
Teachers and organizations who would like to call ahead and schedule a 30-minute guided tour with one of the crew members should call 787-672-2152 or email email@example.com; there is a minimum of 15 participants and the cost is $5 per person, with no limits on the number of participants.
If you would like to view the ships as the sail into port, which is an excellent experience (they light off the canons, too), the ships will arrive on Wednesday, Aug. 28. Also during that weekend, Kentucky’s Western Waterland will host its 38th Annual Labor Day Weekend Arts and Crafts Festival; Saturday Aug. 31 through Monday Sept. 2 in Grand Rivers’ Little Lake Park.
I hope you get to Grand Rivers to experience this great bit of our history, and you once again have enjoyed “The Things I see …”
Wayne Stacy is the “consummate vagabond,” which may be what makes him a great photographer. A former military man himself, he is third-generation child of a family dedicated to military service. He has traveled the world as a military dependent and in his own service to his country. While Stacy has always been an artisan, it wasn’t until he was injured on his job as a Master Electrician in 2002 and could not use his hand for more than three years that he rediscovered his love for photography. He is an on-call photographer for KyForward, is helping build KyForward’s photo archives as well as writes travel pieces. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and see his website here.
Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by Wayne Stacy