CAMDEN, Maine — In a harbor full of gleaming Hinckley picnic boats and graceful wooden schooners, the two black caravels that sailed up to the Camden Public Landing on Tuesday morning really stood out.
The ships are replicas of the Nina and the Pinta, sailed by Christopher Columbus and his crew on his first voyage across the Atlantic in 1492. The first onlookers arrived just after they tied up to the landing.
“I think they’re wonderful,” said Bruce Smith of Northport, who was walking his dog and stopped to stare at the two ships. “It’s the most accurate reproduction I’ve ever seen.”
His wife, Elaine Smith, had a different take.
“I just can’t believe how small the Nina is!” she exclaimed.
The captains and crew members aboard the ships, which are operated as floating museums by the British Virgin Islands-based Columbus Foundation, said these reactions were common. For those wondering where the Santa Maria is hiding, Morgan Sanger, captain of the Nina, had succinct words.
“No Santa Maria,” he said. “Columbus hated the Santa Maria, so we didn’t build her.”
Sanger, a longtime sailor and archaeology historian, said the replica of the Nina was built in Brazil in celebration of the 500th anniversary of the explorer’s revolutionary voyage. The ship was made by 18th generation Portuguese shipwrights who used no power tools, and it is the original size of its namesake vessel. The Pinta is longer and wider than the original.
The caravels were technologically advanced for their time. They were designed by Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator to be quick and agile enough to elude pirates that prowled the oceans.
“These ships can do anything,” Sanger said. “We’ve been through the Panama Canal 10 times. We’ve never had a worry about going anywhere. They’re very seaworthy.”
Deckhand Ryan Lynch of Jensen Beach, Florida, said he was teaching guitar when he saw the two vessels pull into his town earlier this spring and decided to join the crew.
“I always wanted to travel,” he said.
So far, he has had the opportunity to see lots of Atlantic Coast ports as the two vessels have made their way north, with Camden being their northeasternmost destination. He has given tours to people curious about the ships or interested in history and said he enjoys explaining the ins and outs of the vessels.
Each has a draft of just 7 feet, which means they can easily navigate in fairly shallow waters, he said. That was critical for Columbus and his crew of about 24 men on each ship as they explored the Caribbean and its islands. In fact, the Santa Maria, which was not a caravel and had a much deeper draft, ended up running aground off Haiti on Christmas Eve, 1492.
Lynch said crews of yore slept on the deck, because the hold was used exclusively to store a year’s supply of goods and food.
“If they didn’t find land in six months, they could still turn back,” he said.
The Nina and Pinta are on a 10 ½-month journey around the eastern half of North America. After their stop in Camden, the ships will dock in Portland before they sail to New York and turn up the Hudson River.
Because of the shallow drafts, the replica caravels are able to go up rivers and through canals. They will spend the fall stopping at ports along the Mississippi and other rivers.
While sailing the ships up the Atlantic seaboard, the crew has spotted whales, dolphins and bioluminescence shimmering in the ocean.
“It’s like [seeing] northern lights in the water,” Lynch said, adding he’s enjoying his time in a historical vessel. “I like talking to people about history.”
The replica ships will stay at the Camden Public Landing until Tuesday, July 1. The public is invited, and admission charges are $8 for adults, $7 for seniors, $6 for students 5-16 and free for children ages 4 and younger. The ships are open every day from 9 a.m.- 6 p.m. For more information, visit the website at www.thenina.com.