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Nina Sails the Ocean Blue as Teaching Ship in 2002

Times Staff Writer

It first hit Allison Asher when she was tending bar at a place called Zuber’s Marina Grill and Pub on a bulge in the upper Mississippi called Lake Pepin.

That’s when she got the urge to take a break from setting up shots and beers for Sunday sailors in Lake City, Minn. That also happened to be when the winds of fate blew a life-size, hand-built replica of Christopher Columbus’ favorite ship, the Nina, to the dock outside the bar.

“I was just completely excited,” she said. “When the first mate came in to use the phone, I asked him whether someone inexperienced could get a job. He said sure -- not a lot of people have experience sailing a square-rigged vessel from the 1400s.”

At 32, Asher signed on for a 10-day stint as a crew member. That was three years ago and she’s still aboard, hoisting sails, pumping out the bilge and greeting tourists, as she is now doing from the Nina’s berth at Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard.

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The four-masted, broad-bowed ship -- called a caravel by the 15th century Portuguese shipwrights who designed it -- is moored near the Ventura County Maritime Museum through Tuesday. Walk-aboard tours are offered for $4; $3 for students; and $3.50 for seniors.

As a cold fog drifted in one recent day, a few of the Nina’s 10 crew members huddled below decks, chewing over their days and nights at sea. In the last few months, they had sailed in a Canadian tall-ship festival, and in a few days they would be bound for the Panama Canal and home port in the Cayman Islands.

They recalled when 22-foot waves roared out of the Caribbean and surged over the decks, and when the Nina snagged on an Intercoastal Waterway sandbar in Florida, requiring the U.S. Coast Guard to rescue a bit of mud-mired history. They remembered the day the ship pulled in at a tiny Costa Rican coastal village to stock up on food as incredulous local fishermen gaped at the seemingly ancient tub.

In every port, from Brazil to British Columbia and along interior rivers to places as landlocked as Muskogee, Okla., there have been the tourists and their questions. Are there ghosts on board? How did you get here -- did you fly this ship in? Are we floating right now?

Crew members can field most queries the landlubbers toss their way. On long nights between ports, they are intensively schooled in Columbus arcana.

Were there women aboard in Columbus’ day? Not on the first voyage, Asher immediately responds, but there were two gypsies named Catalina and Maria on a later voyage.

And where is the original Nina now? Nobody knows, crew members say. It was last heard of in 1501, as it wended its way toward Venezuela’s Pearl Coast on a trading expedition.

With Columbus viewed in some quarters as the first of the merciless European land-grabbers, the Nina’s crew tries to steer wide of controversy.

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“We don’t even say that Columbus discovered America,” Asher said. “There were others before him. We only say that he discovered a new trade route -- and changed the world.”

On Columbus’ epic voyage in 1492, the crew included freed convicts, impressed seamen, a priest, a physician, a historian, a translator who could communicate with the people of Cathay and India, and even a lawyer who could issue proclamations fit for their princes.

On the modern Nina, the crew includes adventurers who saw an ad and came aboard for weeks or months, willing to tolerate low pay, cramped quarters, wet clothing and sleep interrupted by the required four-hour watches.

Interested in travel, 41-year-old crewman Norm Faber left his dog with his parents in the Bay Area and signed on in Morro Bay. “I’ve got my sea legs from eight years on tugboats,” he said, gazing up at a web of lines protected with a thick coating of tar and linseed oil. “But this is no tug. It’s all Greek to me.”

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Of course, Columbus himself would be totally at sea aboard the ersatz Nina. His Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria had no iceboxes, propane stoves or VCRs; no electrical navigation aids for when a sextant won’t do; and no six-cylinder Mercedes Benz diesel engine for when the winds won’t cooperate.

And in port, there were no students, retirees or curious yachtsmen swarming over the main decks.

Just 67 feet long, the Nina isn’t that much bigger than some of the craft tied nearby. But a small ship can be a big adventure for a little boy like Roy Angulo.

An Oxnard first-grader, he was aboard last week, and all over every nook and cranny open to the public. He peered underneath a canvas covering at the ship’s inflatable life raft, gazed raptly at a 20-minute video on the Nina’s travels, and squinted through a wooden grate into the hold where Columbus suspended live cows and pigs in slings.

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“He just finished studying Columbus in school and was so excited when we told him that we’d visit the ship,” said Roy’s grandmother, Cecilia Cerrutti. “There might not be much to see, but you really get the feel of just how small it really was. It helps you put the history in perspective.”

That was exactly why the Columbus Foundation, a group based in the British Virgin Islands, decided to build the Nina replica in the first place. Construction took three years, with Brazilian shipwrights using only the axes and adzes typical of Columbus’ era. The look of the ship evolved from scholarly guesswork. No paintings of it remain, and plans for ships of the day were not set down in writing.

Still, the Nina tries to hew to history as it’s known through contemporary accounts. Nobody aboard ties the common bowline knot, for instance, because they believe it was unknown in the late 1400s. And they steer the Nina with a tiller instead of a wheel, because the ship’s wheel wasn’t common for another century.

Of course, authenticity goes only so far. Because the hold was crammed with provisions, the 27 crew members on the original Nina all slept on the drenched, tar-smeared deck, with the lucky few finding soft spots on coils of rope. Like other sailors of the day, they caught scurvy from a lack of vitamin C. Today’s crew likes to dine on chicken Caesar salad with garlic toast.

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But hands such as 19-year-old Patrick McGohey feel a certain thrill despite the Nina’s modern conveniences. McGohey was living with his father aboard a boat in Oceanside when he heard the Nina’s call.

“I’ve never driven a car,” he said with an air of wonder, “but I can sail a 15th century caravel.”


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