The work is hard but the life is enviable. They wake to greet the dawn and fall asleep by the light of the stars. They have seen Nicaragua, Mexico, the Caribbean, the Panama Canal. They are assured three meals a day and the adventure of a lifetime.
This week, the seven-member crew of the Niña and the Pinta is in Columbus, giving tours of the “floating museums” — historical replicas of the ships sailed by explorer Christopher Columbus in 1492 — from their berth at the Columbus Marina on Wilkins-Wise Road.
The majority of the crew is comprised of volunteers from all walks of life. Some are high school and college students on summer break. Others, like Del Garner, are retirees.
Garner’s story is typical. The Springfield, Ill. resident had been retired for 20 years and was vacationing on Dauphin Island in Alabama when he met the crew and became enchanted with their story. Every year, he tries to do something different, and this, he thought, was certainly different.
The Niña, 65 feet long and weighing 75 tons, is built to be an exact replica of the tiny ship that was favored by Columbus for its speed and grace. The Pinta, 85 feet long and 101 tons, is a larger version of the archetype, constructed more for the comfort of the crew and featuring a 40-square-foot air-conditioned cabin below.
The ships, known as caravels — small, fast Spanish or Portugese ships popular in the 15th to 17th centuries — were built in the late ’80s and early ’90s by the Columbus Foundation, a group formed in 1986 in the British Virgin Islands expressly for the purpose of commemorating the 500th anniversary of the 1492 voyage.
With no authentic pictures and little money or time, they decided to build only one exact replica, the Niña. They commissioned an American engineer and historian, the late John Sarsfield, to build the vessel in Brazil using the tools and techniques of the ancient master shipbuilders. It made its maiden voyage from Brazil to Costa Rica in December 1991. Later, they built the Pinta.
The foundation decided not to build the Santa Maria, which Columbus hated for its weight and “dull sailing qualities” and did not replace when it sank offshore from Hispaniola on its first voyage.
A typical day for the crew begins with breakfast, galley duty and scrubbing the deck before tour groups arrive. By late Thursday, they had already greeted more than 150 local residents, but some days they may see as many as 1,000 people who come aboard to examine the artifacts and learn more about the history. There is just enough time after their last tour to eat supper, shower and go to bed, finishing their 10-hour shift.
But it’s a good life, said Garner, who likened it to “RV-ing on the water.”
As home-schoolers prowled the decks, clattering their boots against the steep metal ramps and intermittently yelling, “Arrrrgh!!” in pirate-fashion, he and the other ship mates waited patiently, answering questions posed by the parents.
They never tire of talking about the two vessels, even when asked the same questions at every port. They enjoy meeting the people, Garner said.
If there is a downside, and there are few, it is that they seldom get to explore the cities they visit. One night, they stay in a hotel room so they can enjoy an actual bed instead of the World War II-style metal pipe bunks, and someone makes a trip to the grocery store for provisions, but other than that, they are working six days a week.
It is more comfortable than life on the original ships. They have a 1,000-pound ice box, a small propane stove and a 30-inch flat-screen television, along with DVDs to watch. The first crews slept on the deck, braving both the sun and rain. A “lucky” ship mate would find a pile of rope to curl upon.
But inevitably, every person who stepped aboard Thursday afternoon said the same thing: If they could spare the time, if they could somehow escape the 9-to-5 grind, if they had the money, the freedom — they would like to spend a few weeks living on the high seas.
Several local residents have already picked up volunteer applications, and the crew — down by seven from their usual 14 — has a chalkboard sign at the ticket stand advertising for men and women who crave travel, adventure, sailing and meeting new people. No previous sailing experience is required, only “a cheerful willingness to help out on the ship, a strong body and the ability to get along with others.”
She would love to do it, said Kathryn Zellner as she kept a close eye on four-year-old Luca, who was dressed as a pirate, stomping up and down the bow, waving his plastic sword and claw-hook.
But there are never enough hours in the day.
And so, as the sun set on Columbus Lake and the smells of the crew’s supper wafted up from the galley, she stood on the deck and daydreamed, because while time is limited, dreams are endless. And somewhere on the horizon, there’s always another sunset to chase.
The Niña and Pinta will remain docked at the marina through Monday before setting sail for Iuka.
Admission is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors ages 60 and older, $6 for children 5-16 and free for children that are four years old or younger.
For more information, call 787-672-2152.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.