In July, the attractive Mediterranean port town of Sète (about an hour’s drive from Carcassonne) hosted a brand-new replica of Columbus’ Santa María. Perfect reason for a history-themed outing.
Our main wonderment was contemplating the experiences, fear, challenges, courage, danger, and uncertainty on this tiny tiny vessel. We stood on the main and quarter decks, imagining mid-ocean waves taller than the ship itself. To sail across the Atlantic — before they knew there was an across the Atlantic — in a ship the size of an 18-wheeler highway truck: impossible to comprehend even while standing amid the ropes and masts.
The notes in this post come from the exhibit itself, and from a news report. I’ve added some image captions for a few of our personal reactions.
THE SANTA MARIA
The Santa Maria was the flagship with which Admiral Christopher Columbus carried out one of the most significant ocean crossings in history. On August 3rd, 1492, it set sail from the port of Palos de la Frontera (Huelva, Spain) together with the caravels “Pinta” and “Niña”, and reached America on October 12th, 1492, causing an encounter between two worlds that had been unknown to each other until that point.
The Santa María 525 project came about with the objective of reliving history in order to promote the heritage, tourism and culture of the province of Huelva, with the construction and development of one of its most recognizable symbols of identity.
This true-scale replica of the Santa María was built by Fundcacíon Nao Victoria, a Spanish institute that specializes in historic ships. The work was carried out in the coastal town of Pinta Umbría (Huelva, Spain) over twelve months starting in January 2017 and ending in March 2018.
The design includes the results of the new studies on the shapes of this famous vessel, in order to achieve greater maneuverability and better control of the steering. During the process, an innovative system was applied in the sector of construction of historical ship replicas, which combines construction in fiberglass and posterior covering in wood. A new technique that implied enormous progress with regards to the environmental impact, costs, durability and maintenance of the vessel, without affecting its historical aspect, seaworthiness or maneuvering.
100 marine professionals and trades: This is the approximate number of people that have participated in its construction: naval carpenters, net workers, rope workers, historians, engineers and other artisans.
300,000 hours of work: 14 months of work during which the mould of the hull was created, the work with wood was carried out for the cladding, the placement of the masts, the preparation of the rigging and apparel and the installation of the equipment.
Oak wood: Structural pieces
Pine wood: Planking, masts and braces
Olive and holm oak wood: Pulleys and deadheads
Iron: Nails and anchors
Hemp canvas: Sails
Hemp impregnated with tar: Ropes and standing rigging
Esparto (a coarse grass with tough narrow leaves): Anchor ropes
THE SANTA MARIA IN SÈTE
“We intend to go to the east coast of America and Canada, but the construction completion was late; therefore we didn’t have the time to cross the Atlantic during the good weather conditions this year,” explained Carlos Herrera, the captain of the Santa María. It is necessary to wait for the end of hurricane season for the inaugural voyage to America. So various Mediterranean ports will be able to host the ship until November. From tourist to specialist, all will have the chance to be amazed! (France 3, 12 July 2018)
THIS TYPE OF SHIP
A ship of 100 tonnes had an average crew of 45 members. The men at sea consisted of sailors, apprentices, cabin boys, carpenters, caulker, chaplains, steward’s mates and surgeons, who obeyed the high commands of the authorities: owners, pilots, captains and boatswains. There were also royal officers such as sheriff, scribe, treasurer or accountant, who were responsible for ensuring the interests of the Crown.
More than 40 men lived in boats that were just 25 meters in length, with main decks of just 90 m2 of free space to live and work. The responsibilities of each role and trade were clearly established and organized. There was strict discipline on board, so that the operation of the ship was optimized.
The great challenge of the oceanic crossings on the ships was to calculate the position of the ships on the sea, to follow the course traced out and to avoid dangers when approaching an unknown coast. For this, they had rudimentary navigation instruments that, although they did help to determine the latitude through the height of the sun, they made it impossible to calculate the longitude. The mariner’s compass, quadrant, astrolabe, sand time, lead line and log were the navigation instruments used on the Spanish ships. With these, they could measure the height of the sun, the position of the ship, inspect the seabed and determine the speed of the ship in order to draw the route on their navigation charts and determine the course to be followed.
LIFE ON BOARD
Life on board was carried out on the ship’s decks. Daily work was divided into six shifts and only the meals broke the routine. During the night, only the captain had quarters or a cabin to sleep in. The officials rolled out their thin wool mattresses under the awning deck and the rest looked for a place to rest among the scarce free spaces of the forecastle or the main deck on basic mats.
The lack of hygiene, illnesses, the sensation of danger and permanent concern about their destinations were constraint among the crews on these ships, where there was practically no time for leisure. Harsh living conditions that thousands of men experienced on board these ships on the longest ocean crossings recorded in the history of sailing.
Play, talk and read: The difficult sailing conditions didn’t leave much time for entertainment, which was also halted by any maneuver that required the help of all men for rigging or sails. At sea, “playing, talking and reading”, for those that knew how, were the only possible distractions. Despite the express prohibition of games on board, cards and dice ran along the decks without being hidden and the men gambled their breeches, money and weapons.
Meals were prepared by lighting small fires on the main deck. The basic diet consisted of pound cake, legumes, salted meat and fish, dried fruits, vinegar and wine.
Hygiene and illness: The overcrowding on the ships of men with live animals, lice, fleas and rats, and the lack of drinking water, meant that hygiene was visibly lacking. Frequently they suffered diseases, such as the dreaded and deadly scurvy. Health, which was totally precarious, was in the hands of surgeons and barbers who could barely stitch wounds or perform blood-letting.
PARTS OF THE SHIP
Main deck: It is the area where the life of the crew took place: maneuvering, ground-handling, galley… Here the majority of men on board slept on mats, since the hold was used for cargo and gear. During navigation, waves frequently crossed the deck, reducing dry spaces to a minimum.
Quarter deck: It was the center of command for the ship. On it, the Pilot, main responsible for the navigation, could see the sails and the horizon, and he had the basic elements to guide the ship: the navigation needle (compass) situated on the binnacle, and the whipstaff. This deck was used only by the midshipmen.
Stern and rudder: It was the steering system of ships until the appearance of the wheel in the mid-18th century. Exercising a lever over the tiller allowed the crew to control the course of the boat without losing sight of the sails and the sea. Several men were necessary for control of the ship in bad weather.
Captain’s cabin: The only cabin of this type of ship was used just by the captain, the pilot, or the man of greatest rank on board. It usually held just one bunk and a trunk with the nautical charts, navigation instruments, and important documents. Non-officers crew were strictly prohibited from entering this cabin without permission from the captain.
Hold: The ship’s holds were usually full of food and merchandise stored in dozens of barrels, bundles and drawers, making their environment unbreathable.
Some details from the Santa María: