A replica of the boat that Christopher Columbus first sailed across the Atlantic in, “La Niña”, ran aground on sandbanks in a fierce storm, recently, as it attempted to enter Tampa Bay on the West side of the Florida panhandle in the United States. Luckily, the grounding was only temporary and together with a companion boat, the Pinta, it was able to proceed on and tie up for an official visit to Tampa.
Columbus left Spain for the Canary Islands, then crossed the Atlantic with three vessels. His own boat was the Niña. He sailed with the Pinta and the Santa Maria. Only the Niña and the Pinta made it back to Europe.
The Niña was built originally in Moguer in Spain’s Andalucia province, and designed as a coastal trading boat with a shallow draft and wide beam. Strangely, there were no drawings or models of any of the boats which could be used as a reference when the decision was made to build replicas back in 1986 by the Columbus Foundation. The idea at the time was to have two of the three boats built in time for the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ Atlantic crossing. In fact, there was only time and money for one to be built before that date – this was the Niña.
The Niña and Pinta were caravel redondas – four masted timber boats with square sails for down wind sailing on the two fore masts and lateen sails on the two aft mizzen masts. They had large holds for carrying cargo and were much in use during the so called “Age of Discovery”. They were apparently good sailing boats and were used in times of war as well as for piracy. The cargo hold came in useful on Columbus’ voyages as the sailors had to share the ships with horses, cattle, chickens and pigs! The animals were kept in slings to stop them from being damaged when sailing.
The Santa Maria- Columbus’ third boat of the expedition was a different type of boat called a Nao, or freighter. It was apparently disliked by Columbus and never survived the trip and was wrecked on a reef, in what is now the Dominican Republic. Columbus said after it ran aground that it was too clumsy and slow and not suited for the purposes of discovery when there was a need for maneuverability in waters that were unknown.
The replica Niña was buillt in Brazil between 1987 and 1991. The location for the project was specially chosen by the Columbus Foundation because of the skills that the boat builders had in the Brazilian coastal village of Valenca on Brazil’s Bahia coast and the tools they used for boat building- hand tools such as axes, adzes, and saws. The timber for the craft came from nearby forest trees and it was built not from an actual paper plan, but from a mental image the boat builders had in their heads. The boat building method used in the sleepy little village was called Mediterranean Cold Moulding and dated back to the time of the real Niña. .
The replica was completed in 1991 and sailed for 4,000 miles on its first voyage through the Panama Canal and up to the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, proving that a replica caravel could still complete lengthy voyages 500 years after it was the master of the seas. The Niña arrived in time for the filming of “1492”, featuring Columbus and his four voyages.
The Niña’s sister ship, the Pinta, was built a little later, also in Valenca in Brazil. The two replica boats are still used and are actively sailed around the U.S. coast as floating museums representing the type of boat that was prevalent in the fifteenth century.