story and photos by Joel Rafkin
Schoolchildren and adults embarked on a voyage back in time as they visited replicas of Columbus’ ships the Niña and Pinta docked at 4831 Clayton Expressway this past week.
The Columbus Foundation, based in the Bristish Virgin Islands, takes the ships on tour from March through December and provides an opportunity for people to experience a living history lesson on the most accurate caravel reproductions ever built.
Both vessels were in Fort Smith through Sunday (Nov. 20). Link here for the touring schedule and additional information.
In 1986 the Columbus Foundation was formed to raise the funds for construction of the Niña in anticipation of the 500-year anniversary of Columbus’ voyage in 1492. The vessel was built by Portuguese shipwrights in Brazil and was finished in December 1991. Ridley Scott, director of the film “1492: Conquest of Paradise,” used the ship in his film in 1992. Stephen Sanger, first mate of the Pinta, the sister ship of the Niña, said that following the filming, many people inquired about the Niña and that’s when she went on tour throughout North America.
The Pinta was built 10 years later with funds provided from the the Niña’s touring revenue, Sanger said. The Pinta originally provided day sailing trips for up to 100 people in the Cayman Islands but joined the Niña to tour in 2009. The ships are both caravel style crafts with the Pinta being the larger of the two. Sanger said there are no plans to build Columbus’ third ship, the Santa Maria, because it was largest of the three and would not be able to navigate the inland waterways due to its size. The Santa Maria would require a 14 feet draft, double that of the current ships, and its masts would not clear the lower bridges that currently offer only an extra foot of clearance to the Pinta.
The crew of the two boats is made up of volunteers from around the country who sign up for a commitment of at least one month. There is no pay involved but food, shelter and a chance to tour the country are the perks of working on a sailing ship. Accommodations are sparse but nothing like those a half a millennium ago. Although the vessels are as historically accurate as possible, they are equipped with electricity, a diesel engine and modern electronics for navigation. There is no wheel however, and steering is done via a long wood tiller — just like the crew of yesteryear.
"We’ve had crew that have been on for over a year now. As long a they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing and doing a good job and we’re happy with it, they can stay on," Sanger said when asked if there is a limit to the time a person can volunteer.
The Niña operates with a crew of six and the Pinta with a crew of seven people which is three shy of the 10 the Pinta can accommodate. Each vessel has a full-time paid captain and first mate as part of the crew. Kyle Friauf has captained the Niña for the past six years while Morgan Sanger, who has been with the Columbus Foundation since its inception in 1986, is in charge of the Pinta. Both first mates have been onboard for three years — Victor Bickel on the Niña and Stephen Sanger on the Pinta.
The ships spend about 10 days in each port as they make their way across the country. On weekdays, it is not uncommon for 500 schoolchildren to take the tour and learn about the parts of the boats and the history of discovery by the knowledgeable and people-oriented crew.
Sanger said weekends are the busy time with almost 1,000 people per day visiting the ships. Admission costs $8 for adults, $7 seniors and $6 for children 5-18. Items are available for purchase in the gift shop located under the poop deck of the Pinta. The funds raised support the maintenance of the ships and the living expenses of the crew.