"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Thursday, February 25, 2010

La Nina

Choose your preferred scenario:

A. You’re sitting in an elementary school classroom and the teacher is droning on about some guy and his three boats sailing west, not knowing if he’ll fall off the edge of the earth or find some country he’s looking for, the one with all the spices. India, yeah, that’s the one. You keep glancing at the big clock on the wall, the one with the white face and black hands. It seems to take an hour for each minute to tick off, and if you look away, you swear it’s gone backward. You really, really hate history class.

Oh, that thing about the Indians is a little interesting—too bad there wasn’t a big fight or something, anything to make this lesson lively. I mean, c’mon, the dude thought he was in India, for Pete’s sakes. Any minute now you expect the teacher to start saying, “Bueller? Bueller? Bueller? Won’t recess ever come?”

B. Parental permission slip in hand, you and your classmates board a big yellow school bus for a trip to the harbor to look at some stinky old boat. Well, it’s better than sitting in a hot classroom. Walking down the dock, you look around for a big boat, but there’s nothing there but a little old thing hardly bigger than a rowboat. Okay, maybe it’s a little bigger than that. What? This can’t be it! No way some dude sailed this little thing across the Atlantic and discovered the New World. Holy cow! We’re getting on this toy boat?

The Nina at the dock in Mazatlan.

You’re down in the hold and the guide is talking about how the four-legged animals were kept in slings because the rolling of the ship (Ship? This thing’s a ship?) would cause them to fall and break their legs. Horses, cows, pigs, all slung up to the overhead beams, and chickens everywhere. Some of the boys snicker at the idea of horses and cowing swinging back and forth. The teacher glares at them. Kegs and crates, casks of water and coils of rope fill all the rest of the room.

Where did the crew sleep? What? On the open deck? No way, dude.

Then suddenly, standing there in the stuffy hold, where grown ups have to stoop slightly to keep from banging their heads, it all comes alive for you. The smells of animal waste and creosote, tar and pine pitch sting your nostrils. The sounds of the animals, the creaking of the wooden shop, the snapping of the sails in a brisk wind echo in your ears.

The Nina crew provided platters of fresh fruit for our cruise.

On the upper deck, you imagine the ship heeled over in a starboard wind, waves washing over the deck of the heavily-laden ship, drenching the sailors trying to sleep on it. Only those lucky enough to find a coil of rope to lie on are staying somewhat dry, though rainwater drips down on them from the sails. Salt water dries your skin and thick calluses form from handling the ropes for the sails.

Bow and rigging.

The only sheltered spot is under the poop deck where the tiller is manned, a long thick wooden pole attached to the rudder for steering. But, there are twenty-seven crew, and not enough room for everyone under there.

The pole at left is the tiller. It took quite a bit of strength to hold it steady and stay on course.

The cook is hunched over a firebox near the bow, trying to keep a large pot from sliding off the fire and dumping dinner all over the deck. Rainwater pours into the pot as the cook fastens a piece of flapping canvas around the windward side of the fire in a frantic effort to keep the fire lit. Maybe it’s hard tack for rations tonight.

“The Niña,” says the guide, “was Columbus’s favorite ship. The Santa Maria was his flagship because it was the largest of three three boats chosen for the voyage, but Columbus disliked its heavy sailing. The Niña, the sixteenth century caravel—a common trading vessel, was his favorite because of her shallow draught, maneuverability, and swift sailing qualities.”

photo from postcard sold by Columbus Foundation, Morgan Sanger photographer

“This caravel,” the guide continues, “is the most historically accurate replica of the Niña that has ever been built.” He recites the ship’s dimensions: 93.6 feet long overall, with a 66 foot long deck. The beam is 17.3 feet wide, and the draft is only seven feet. She has 1919 square feet of sail, and her displacement is a hundred tons.

Wow, you think. She looks like she could fit in a swimming pool.

After many years of research, looking at recent discoveries of ship-wrecked fifteenth and sixteenth century caravels, the Columbus Foundation began building an accurate replica of the Niña at Bahia on the coast of Brazil, where shipwrights still use an archaic building process known as Mediterranean Whole Moulding “in conjunction with mechanically generated geometric progressions known as graminhos, techniques that may be similar or identical to those used by the builders of discovery period ships.” In Whole Moulding, three different shaped patterns are used to cut directly from timber.

In Brazil, the shipwrights used traditional tools, such as axes, adzes, hand saws, and chisels. The various naturally-shaped timbers required were found in the surrounding tropical forests.

You are glued to every word, and pepper the guide with questions afterwards. He tells you this Niña was used in filming the movie “1492” with Gerard Depardieus playing the part of Columbus. Since then she has been used as a floating maritime museum, visiting ports on both the East and West coasts, and inland on the waterways of the United States. Unfortunately, with liability laws being what they are in the U.S., she is not available for sailing trips.

But if you had been in Mazatlan, Mexico, in 1996, you could have sailed out of the harbor and along the coastline, getting a good idea of what Columbus and his crew experienced.

So, which scenario appeals to you? You could even have had held the tiller, but you had to wear a pirate hat to do so. And, if you were a veteran sailor like my husband was (he sailed as a Merchant Mariner beginning on his 16th birthday and during the waning months of WWII), the captain of the Niña would have given you a special behind the scenes tour of this fabulous, historic vessel.

He was so used to wearing caps, he forgot he still had the pirate hat on.

(NOTE: More information on the Niña can be found at the Columbus Foundation’s web site: http://www.thenina.com/

She has been joined by her sister ship, the Pinta. From early March through early May, the ships will be in various ports in Florida, Georgia, and South Caroline. There are many other East Coast and inland ports of call on the schedule for the remainder of this year.)

photo from postcard sold by the Columbus Foundation, Morgan Sanger photographer

No comments:

Post a Comment