Dwarfed by giant cruise ships all around her, a tiny wooden sailing ship was moored along the waterfront in Old San Juan. A sign proclaimed her to be the Nao Santa Maria, a replica of the ship Christopher Columbus sailed in on his first voyage to the New World. The ship was in San Juan as part of a voyage taking her to various ports in the Americas. Since the sign said that she was open to the public, we went aboard.
The original Santa Maria
The original Santa Maria was built as a cargo ship or nao. It was probably constructed in the province of Galicia since its original name was La Gallega.
History is rather vague about the details of the ship. However, based upon the diaries of people involved with the ship and from studies of other ships of that period, a number of conclusions are generally accepted. Designed to carry cargo, the ship was probably fat and slow. She was about 62 feet (19 m) long and had a beam of 62 feet 5.5. Her average speed was about 4 knots and her top speed about 8 knots.
The ship was propelled by approximately 300 square feet of sail. She had one sail on each of her three masts. The ones on the foremast and the mainmast were square and the one on the mizzen was triangular (lanteen). There was also a square sail on the bow sprint.
In 1492, its owner was Juan de la Cosa. He rented the ship to the Spanish crown for the Colmbus expedition and agree to serve as first officer. Contrary to the romantic tale that Queen Isabella pawned her jewels in order to finance the expedition, it is now believed that it was financed by a group of Genovese bankers who were then resident in Seville.
Columbus changed the name of La Gallega to La Santa Maria de la Inmacula da Concepcion. It became known as the Santa Maria.
The expedition was to include three ships. Santa Maria would be the flagship with about 40 in the ship's company . Two smaller caravels Santa Clara (known as La Nina) and La Pinta would accompany Santa Maria with crews of 18 each.
Contrary to legend, the crews were not made up of criminals pressed into service. The crown had offered amnesty to any prisoner who would go on the voyage but only four volunteered. As a result, the ships were crewed by experienced sailors.
On August 3, 1492, the expedition set off from Palos de la Fronterra, sailing westward in hopes of finding a new route to Eastern Asia. Two months later on October 12, 1492, they came upon the Bahamas. As a result, two worlds that had for all practical purposes, not known of each of others' existence collided.
Columbus did not return home immediately but instead explored the Caribbean for several months. On the night of December 24, 1492, Columbus went to bed, leaving navigation of the ship to a mate. The mate decided to get some sleep himself and against standing orders, left a cabin boy to steer the ship. Santa Maria ran aground on a sandbar off of Haiti.
Realizing that his ship could not be saved Columbus abandoned the Santa Maria. However, he ordered his me to strip the ship of its equipment and timbers. These were used to build a fort on Haiti called La Navidad because it was built on Christmas Day. An anchor said to be from the Santa Maria is in a museum in Haiti.
Nao Santa Maria is not the first replica of the Santa Maria to be built. Indeed, a replica was built in 1892 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus' expedition. Several others have been built including versions built in Canada, the United States and the Canary Islands.
This replica was built by Fundacion Nao Victoria, a Spanish institute specializing in historic ships. The purpose was to mark the 525th anniversary of the voyage and to promote tourism and the heritage and culture of the Province of Huela in Spain.
Construction began in January 2017 in Punta Umbria, Spain and was completed in March 2018. Since then, the Nao Santa Maria has sailed across the Atlantic and traveled from port to port acting as a floating museum.
Although the ship looks like a 15th century ship, she was built to satisfy 21st century safety and environmental regulations. Thus, Nao Santa Maria has radar, GPS, engines, fuel tanks a machine room and accommodations for her crew including showers, sinks and a gas cooker.
All of these modern devices are discretely hidden. Visitors going aboard Nao Santa Maria see the features and accommodations of a shp of Columbus' time. In addition, exhibits in the cargo hold include replicas of navigation tools, cannons and other things that sailors of that era would have known. These are accompanied by multi-lingual signs telling the story of the ship and the voyage.
Above: The main deck looking aft.
Below: The mechanism for turning the ship's rudder.
Above: Columbus' cabin.
Below: The area where the crew ate and slept.
Above: The bow.
Below: Nao Santa Maria's stern.
Exhibition ships - Nao Santa Maria