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."