Some 526 years ago, a foolhardy dreamer dared to reach the east by sailing west.
Most perceptive folks back in 1492 realized the earth was not actually flat after all. But still ...
“They didn’t know where they were going, or what they would find,” Angel Rosa said Wednesday of Christopher Columbus’ earth-shaking voyage.
Rosa has a pretty good idea what it must have felt like for Columbus and his crew. A Spaniard, the affable young man first arrived in the Americas last December, taking roughly the same route as Columbus. And he was sailing in pretty much the same ship.
The Nao Santa Maria arrived Wednesday morning in Brunswick, the ship’s latest stop on an educational tour of the eastern United States. It is docked at Brunswick Landing Marina, where it will be open to visitors through Sunday. The ship’s 82-foot-tall mainmast punctured the waterfront skyline Wednesday, and its 93-foot wooden hull of an Old World nautical design fairly distinguished itself along Brunswick’s East River.
“Our main goal is to bring this piece of history to America,” Rosa said, looking down from the poop deck on a noontime crowd of children and adults shuffling about the main deck. “It’s a very very important part of America, and we’re very happy to share this.”
The Santa Maria is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day through Sunday. Tickets cost $10 for adults, $5 for children and $25 for families.
Before you go, here is a refresher course:
The Santa Maria was the flagship of the audacious expedition backed by Spain’s Queen Isabella. A ship of the Nao design, the Santa Maria was joined by the smaller but swifter caravels Nina and Pinta. They set sail from Spain on Aug. 3 of 1492, reaching Spanish holding on the Canary Islands on Aug. 9. They cast off from the known world on Sept. 6. After 36 nerve-racking days, the expedition reached a new and unknown world of its own on Oct. 12 — probably making landfall in Hispaniola.
And then the Santa Maria was lost to history, shipwrecking on Christmas day of that year. The ship’s remains were scavenged to build Fort Natividad for those who remained behind after the rest of the crew returned home on Nina and Pinta.
So, how did an exact replica of the Santa Maria end up at the Brunswick Landing Marina this week?
“We’ve combined the Old World with the modern,” explained Rosa.
It helps that Spain’s bureaucracy has kept painstaking records for at least half a millennia. The ship’s owner, the Nao Victoria Foundation, researched documents on the original Santa Maria for well over a year to come up with plans for the replica. Construction began in Huelva, Spain, in January of 2017 and was not completed until March of 2018, Rosa said.
“It’s a faithful replica as far as design, shape and size,” he noted. “We used the most convenient materials available in contemporary times.”
That means the sturdy planks of wood that make up virtually every square inch of the Nao Santa Maria are of the durable African iroko variety instead of the pine and oak that comprised the original. The ship’s sturdy masts are iron, but it takes a close inspection to notice it under the wood-hued paint job.
Also, the ship has the capacity for engine power, and employs GPS and other modern technologies on which international sailing regulations insist, he said. The 12-person crew’s modern-comfort quarters in the stern of the hull belowdecks are sealed off from the rest of the ship, keeping the 15th Century mariner illusion alive for visitors.
It did not take much of a stretch for Millie and Larry Murray to grasp it Wednesday as they stood on the ship’s deck.
“I cannot imagine being on such a small ship with no navigation,” said Millie, a Macon resident with a home on St. Simons Island. “The real explorers did not know what they were getting into.”
Husband Larry Murray ran his hand over the railing on the poop deck, speculating on the mastery of the era’s shipbuilders.
“I’m so much more impressed at the ingenuity and the craftsmanship involved,” Larry said. “It’s amazing, they built all of this mostly with their hands. They built something like this, and then had the courage to get it in and go.”
Again, Rosa understands. He had little previous sailing experience before signing with the Nao Santa Maria crew. He took media studies in college, but has harbored a lifelong love of travel. He never imagined his wanderlust would find him sailing in Columbus’ wake in replica of the great explorer’s ship.
“I love traveling,” he said. “Then I tried sailing, and I got hooked on it.”
For the record, the Nao Santa Maria made better time than the original, 23 days between the Canary Islands and a Dec. 18 landfall in Puerto Rico. But it was not because of those power engines. The crew traveled with their square-rigged sails unfurled and the wind at their backs for the entire transAtlantic crossing. (The ship’s engines were kept on at idle setting for stability and safety reasons during the crossing.)
Their days were divided into three work shifts, with each sailor taking two shifts daily: the same as Columbus’ crew. They fished with handlines to supplement their diet. Unlike Columbus, however, Rosa stored photos on his cellphone of the more sizable mahi mahi they hooked.
“It was beautiful, but tough at times,” he said. “We saw dolphin every day. And then there were whales also.”
Standing beside Rosa, visitor Patty Rikoci looked up to the towering mainmast. “Nobody went up there, I hope,” she said.
Rosa smiled. “How will we be able to open the top mainsail if we don’t?” he replied, sounding very much like an old salt by now.
“I wouldn’t do it,” said Rikoci’s husband, John.
The Nao Santa Mario first arrived on the mainland U.S. at Port Canaveral, Fla., in December. They have covered a lot new territory since, including up the Mississippi River to Baton Rogue, La. They have also made ports of call in Panama City, Fla., Key West, Fla., and Beaufort, N.C. Most all of the journey has been made under sail. After a trip to St. Augustine, the Nao Santa Maria will make its way north, touring the Great Lakes by summertime.
The crew set sail from Beaufort for Brunswick on Tuesday. Beaufort’s Rebecca Stephens was so impressed, she volunteered to join the crew. Stephens will continue to help out at the ticket booth, but the oceangoing voyage to Brunswick aboard the Santa Maria made a landlubber out of her.
“Never again,” she said with a laugh. “Don’t let them fool you. It’s a beachball with a mast on top — it just rocks and rolls, back and forth, back and forth. And to think, Columbus would have had 40 people on board, and goats and chickens. And he didn’t know where he was going.”