HUNTINGTON — The age of discovery came to the Tri-State when replicas of two of Christopher Columbus’s ships docked at Harris Riverfront Park Tuesday.
Authentic from the tips of their masts to their keel timbers, the Niña and Pinta are floating museums that take visitors back to a time when the only motive power was wind and the only GPS was the stars.
Built using hand tools and 15th century techniques by Brazilian shipwrights steeped in tradition, the ships will remain in Huntington through Monday and visitors may tour them for a fee.
The ships are caravels, which in the 15th century were ubiquitous trading vessels on the Mediterranean. The sturdy little ships proved ocean-worthy and, along with the larger Santa Maria, took Columbus and his men to their rendezvous with the New World.
Three years of research went into the design of the Niña, said its captain, Stephen Sanger. Shipwrights used Columbus’s logbooks to aid in designing the ship, since no contemporary plans, pictures or illustrations exist.
Building the Niña took 20 craftsmen 32 months, Sanger said.
Now, the two ships tour the eastern hemisphere almost around the calendar, serving as a traveling museum and educational resource.
The Niña’s original complement of 24 men was crammed into a space 65 feet long from stem to stern and 18 feet wide. They slept on deck because the hold was reserved for storage, provisions and animals.
The replicas travel with much smaller crews. They have auxiliary engines for use on inland waters and modern navigational equipment, but otherwise crewmembers have the same duties as sailors in Columbus’s day.
They heave on lines to hoist sails and steer the ship with a 12-foot tiller that turns the rudder.
The modern crew have it a little better than their 15th century antecedents, but life on board is anything but luxurious, said John Hotapp, a Charleston, W.Va. man who joined the crew recently.
They sleep below but this time of year wake to a frosty morning and turn out to start their duties, Hotapp said.
Not that he is complaining. The retired archaeologist toured the ship in Charleston and saw a notice that crew members were needed. Now he plans to stay with the ship at least until Christmas.
“How many times can you sail on a ship that’s a replica of one of Columbus’ vessels?” he said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”
Visitors will truly see what the voyage to America was like, he said.
The ships could use more crew members, first mate Vic Bickel said. Sailing experience isn’t required. Applicants must be at least 18, have generally good health, hearing and sight, and a good attitude, and be willing to stay with the ship at least a month. Typical applicants are high school graduates wanting the experience before college or college students wanting to keep occupied between terms. There is no upper age limit, however.
Applicants may inquire at the ships or at the website, www.theniña.com.
Those who just want to visit may take the self-guided tour from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day through Monday. Admission is $8 for adults $7 for seniors, and $6 for students 5-16. Children 4 and under are free. No reservations are necessary.
MIKE JAMES can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2652.