Santa Maria

While having a lunch in Newburyport I had the opportunity to check out a replica of the Santa Maria docked for a short stay in town.  The original famously sailed for America in 1492 with Christopher Columbus.  This one sailed to America for a 225th anniversary tour this spring.  There are plenty of differences between the original and the replica, starting with the additions of steel, fiberglass and electronics.  But the dimensions are accurate, and you got a good sense for what the sailors on board were dealing with.

A few observations from walking around onboard.  First, a 58 foot square-rigged sailing vessel seemed too small for the 45 members of the crew.  Cramped quarters, frequent exposure to the elements, sleeping on wool rolls on a hard, sloped deck, and eating sponge cake washed down with red wine was not a recipe for optimal living.  Throw in hygiene issues, not the least of which was serious body odor, and health concerns ranging from scurvy to lice and it was clearly not a place I would have opted for.

The Santa Maria, called a Nau in Spain but known as a Carrack in the rest of the world, was a three masted, square-rigged ship weighing between 80 and 150 tons, which stood high about the breaking waves.  The ship’s large hold made it attractive for someone like Christopher Columbus, who made the Santa Maria his flagship.  The raised quarterdeck allowed the captain and midshipmen to command the ship with good sight lines fore and aft.  Striking to me was just how much of a pitch the deck had.  Good for quickly shedding sea water from heavy wave action or rainwater, but standing on it in rough weather must have been tricky.

The original Santa Maria didn’t survive the trip to America and back, running aground when Columbus and the captain both slept while a cabin boy steered the ship onto a sandbar.  Steering on the Santa Maria was done with a whipstaff, which was a vertical pole connected to the tiller.  The limitation with a whipstaff was that you could only adjust a maximum of about 15 degrees in either direction because a pole stuck through the quarterdeck to the tiller just didn’t allow for more range.  Ships wheels wouldn’t become standard on sailing ships for another two hundred years.  So the cabin boy who was steering wasn’t exactly set up for success.  Even though the ship never made it back to Spain, it remains one of the most familiar ship names in America (Show me a kid who doesn’t know Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria!).  I do hope this one has a longer lifespan and none of the navigational issues of its namesake.

Columbus has lost his luster as a heroic figure, but there’s no doubting the courage of the crew for sailing on a ship this small, with two even smaller ships, to explore the unknown.  I think that’s why there’s still such a fascination with the three ships, and this one in particular.

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