OHIO VALLEY — They came quietly upstream, almost unnoticed as they passed by residents accustomed to an abundance of daily river traffic. But wait, on second glance, what are those boats or ships?
What those lucky enough to observe on the Ohio River Wednesday were replicas of the Niña and Pinta, two of the three ships Columbus used on his first expedition to the New World in 1492. The third boat was known as the Santa Maria. The Columbus Foundation produced the replicas, which are used as floating museums in the Western Hemisphere.
The ships of Columbus’ original fleet were built to sail the Mediterranean, not to carry men and supplies across the rough waters of the Atlantic. The Santa Maria was the larger of the three ships and was the flagship of Columbus’ first voyage. The foundation has not yet replicated this vessel.
According to the Columbus Foundation the Niña replica is the most historically accurate replica of Columbus’ ship ever built. The original vessel carried supplies and 24 crewmembers as it set sail Aug. 4, 1492. The crew slept on the deck floor until they adopted the use of hammocks after being introduced to them by Native Americans.
The Niña became Columbus’ favorite and his crew sailed the tiny ship over 25,000 miles in total. It was last heard from in 1501 when she departed for a trading voyage to Venezuela.
The Pinta was the fastest of the three ships. Developed by the Portuguese, it was a small and highly maneuverable sailing ship. The Pinta replica was recently built in Brazil by the Foundation to accompany the Nina on her travels. She is listed as a larger version of the archetypal caravel and is available for private parties and charters.
Volunteers staff the ships, signing on for a minimum tour of 30 days.
Jeff Hicks signed on as a cook and deck hand. A carpenter by trade, Hicks said he finished a project in Savannah, Ga. and was asked to volunteer.
“So here I am,” he said. “Cruising on the Niña, what an experience.”
Ricki Smith, a University of Louisville student, is taking time off from her studies to be part of the Nina crew.
“I’m a geography major, and this just seemed like something I thought I would enjoy doing,” Smith said. “And I am.”
Gunner Duncan, a construction worker, stood on the Nina, smiling as the vessel traveled through the Racine Locks and Dam.
Waving as they floated out of the chamber in Racine, the crew of the Niña continued their journey upriver a short distance behind the Pinta. The scene was a bit incongruent; as they left the chamber, a large modern riverboat was waiting, eclipsing both the Pinta and Nina. Almost like something from a science fiction movie, the historic boats sailed past the riverboat.
Their next stop is Wheeling, W. Va. then onto Pittsburgh, Pa.
For more information on the ships’ histories and travels, visit their website at the nina.org.