The Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria are synonymous with the first voyage of Columbus. Replicas of the ships constructed over the years help us envision the remarkable journey of Columbus and his sailors as they crossed the vast ocean in three small ships. Smaller replicas are displayed in museums worldwide, but a number of years ago, two full-size ships were built to fulfill a unique mission.
Decades ago, the Columbus Foundation of the British Virgin Islands, was organized with the objective of raising money to fund the construction of the three ships to recreate the most famous trio of sailing ships in the world. The Niña, Columbus’ personal favorite, was the first to be completed and represents the most historically accurate replica of a Columbus ship ever built. In 1988, the Foundation hired John Patrick Sarsfield, an American engineer, maritime historian and expert on Portuguese caravels, to design and construct a replica of the Niña. Sarsfield needed to learn the centuries-old ship building process called Mediterranean Whole Molding. This was a technique used by master ship builders during the 15th century and was the probable method used to build the Niña and Pinta, both of which were constructed decades before their original journeys to the New World. He learned the secrets of shipwrights that were fundamental in the re-creation of the Niña. Because there were no plans to follow, the shipwrights used “mental templates” basing the dimensions of the ship on a set of proportions. Using traditional tools, construction methods and wood sourced locally near the construction site, the new Niña slowly began to take shape. Several important design details, such as the number of masts and the rigging specifics, were clarified by data from discoveries of 15th and 16th century Spanish shipwrecks in the Caribbean.
In December 1991, the Niña set sail from its shipyard in Brazil with a crew of eleven. The ship was bound for Costa Rica, where it was filmed in the Ridley Scott production of “1492.” The Pinta, the foundation’s second Columbus discovery ship, was built to accompany the Niña on all of her travels. She is a larger version of the typical caravel and has more expansive deck space for walk-aboard tours.
The two ships continue to sail to new ports and the Niña is the only touring maritime museum of its kind. The ships sail on what is called “The Great Loop” up the East Coast, through the Great Lakes, down the Mississippi River and through the Gulf of Mexico. The ships travel ten months of the year with only a short break in dry dock for repairs.
The Niña’s deck length is 65 feet, with a beam of 18 feet. It draws only seven feet of water. The larger Pinta has a deck length of 85 feet and a beam of 23 feet. It has a draft of 7.5 feet.
So what about the Santa Maria? Since she was a different type of ship, considerably larger and having twice the draft of the Niña and Pinta, a Santa Maria replica would not be able to travel to many places where the other two ships visit, so there are no plans for the Columbus Foundation to build a Santa Maria.