Nina, Pinta dock in Charleston
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Imagine climbing on a wooden sailing ship with two dozen other teenagers, assorted pigs, chickens, goats and as much water and food as you can cram aboard, for a yearlong voyage across unexplored oceans.
You can get some idea of the hardships Columbus and his crew faced more than 500 years ago in their search for a western passage to the Far East by visiting replicas of two of his ships -- the Nina and the Pinta -- for the next 10 days at Haddad Riverfront Park.
Crewmembers lacked beds, let alone cabins, said Vic Bickel, first mate of the Nina.
"This deck," he said, indicating the open but cluttered main deck, "this was their home the entire day. The deck -- if you're not on duty, you're sleeping, 12 [men] on, 12 off, in four-hour shifts. You tried to find a corner out of the way to sleep.
"The hold, where we sleep, that's where the animals were kept. A small barnyard, meat for the trip -- rabbits, chickens, pigs, goats, even horses, barrels of feed, lots and lots of fresh water. One meal a day if you're lucky. And this is the amazing thing: they go to sea at 14 to 19 years old. That's middle-age by 15th century standards."
Standing at mid-ship, you're struck by how small the Nina is -- less than 18 feet across at its widest point, 65 feet long. Columbus sailed with only the crudest instruments, compass and astrolabe, navigating by the stars.
Though the replica Nina was built as close to the original as possible, with 15th century tools and held together with wooden pegs and dowels, it has a few modern conveniences.
"We try to keep it hidden while we're in port," Bickel said. "The radar is down below, GPS is down below. When it's foggy, the radar is on." You don't want to run into a tow of coal barges while cruising up the Kanawha at night, he said.
And while running with the wind is fine -- and free -- on the open sea or large rivers, the ships have engines for backup.
"On a river like this, it's hard [to sail]," Bickel said. "And in locks -- we've been through 106 locks -- regulations say you have to be under power."
Members of the Columbus Foundation, based in the British Virgin Islands, raised funds to build the Nina in time for the 500th anniversary of Columbus' first voyage in 1492, said Morgan Sanger, captain of the Pinta, who's been with the group since 1986. The original idea was to build replicas of all three ships.
"At the time we only had money to build the Nina," he said. "Over time we had money to build [the Pinta] in 2002-2006. Like the Nina, it was built in a shipyard in Valenca, Brazil. But unlike the Nina, it's 50 percent larger than the original.
"This was originally built to do day-sailing in the Cayman Islands for cruise-ship passengers and sunset trips for the Ritz-Carlton." The concept never panned out. "When the economy crashed in 2008, so did the Caymans. We teamed up with the Nina and started sailing together two years ago."
Since then, the ships have been touring the eastern U.S., from Florida to New York, up the Hudson River, through the Erie Canal to the Great Lakes and into the Mississippi/Ohio river system. They'll head to Huntington next.
The boats are open for tours from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day, until they depart early in the morning on Nov. 5.
For a fee ($8 adults, $7 seniors, $6 students 5-16, free kids 4 and under), visitors can climb aboard, talk to crew members and poke around the main deck. On the larger Pinta they can climb to the upper aft deck, look at nautical exhibits and buy souvenirs at the ship's store.
And if you're looking for adventure, the captains are looking for volunteers and paid crewmembers to join the ships on their trip south for the winter.
"We'd like to have four to six people to go down to the Gulf of Mexico," Bickel said. No experience is necessary. "We train them." For information, go to the foundation's website, thenina.com.
Reach Jim Balow at email@example.com or 304-348-5102.