It’s probably the first world history lesson that U.S. kids get in elementary school: In 1492 America was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus in the Niña, Pinta, and the flagship Santa María. He was lost and would never set foot in America, but to his dying day believed that the indigenous people of the Bahamas, Caribbean, and Central America were residents of India. He spent several months exploring the New World on that first voyage, but the Santa María was never to see Spain again, as it ran onto a reef near Cap-Haïtien, Haiti, and sank on Christmas morning.
But a version of the Santa María is sailing again. In 2018, the Fundación Nao Victoria in Huelva, Spain, launched a 200-ton, full-scale replica of the Santa María, which has spent the last few years touring North and Central America and the Caribbean, acting as a floating museum and goodwill ambassador. During 12 months of construction, the shipwrights, carpenters, ropemakers, and mechanics were faithful to the design and dimensions of the original wherever possible—a painstakingly difficult task, as the Santa María was never found and its plans lost to history.
When I first see her resting at the pier in Jacksonville, Florida, the sight is equal parts breathtaking and unsettling. Nothing outwardly betrays the ship’s 21st-century construction, right down to the whip staff at the ship’s helm and the bridge where Columbus wrote his log. There it rests in front of the Hyatt Hotel—a time traveler from the Age of Discovery.
I’m here to meet her as a ride-along guest for the four-day trip from Jacksonville to Fort Lauderdale, where she will be decommissioned, loaded onto a transport ship, and returned to Spain.
In the galley, I meet with Ángel Rosa, project manager of the Santa María, and he is troubled.
“In a few days there will be some bad weather coming, and there are no berths available in Fort Lauderdale,” he laments. Further complicating things are pandemic restrictions that have left them sailing with a skeleton crew of nine (about half the regular crew of 17). They’re on a tight timeline, and the decision is made to depart today while Ángel drives ahead and searches for a suitable slip somewhere in south Florida.
I have my own troubled moment as we drift away from the pier, waving at Ángel and realizing that he may have been the only one on board who speaks English. I walk around the deck nervously looking at these strangers I’ll be sailing with for the coming days.
“Buen día a todas, mi nombre es Roberto,” I say sheepishly. “Hi Roberto, I’m Miguel,” the captain replies brightly. “Welcome aboard.” What a relief! Most of the crew speak English far better than my own wretched high school Spanish.
Rolling Down the Coast
Unlike her namesake, this Santa María discreetly carries modern marine accoutrements that make sailing her not unlike other vessels of her size: twin 250-hp diesel engines, GPS, AIS, VHF radio, radar, liferaft, EPIRB, and a generator—even a bow thruster.
Still, on this voyage, there would be many lessons about traveling on an authentic, square-rigged carrack. The first is that it takes a lot of people to sail it. Columbus sailed with 40, we have 10, so the plan is to leave the sails furled and run the twin John Deeres the whole way.
The second lesson is that the ship is very tender and will roll badly in a rough sea. Soon after departure, the crew gathers to lower three yardarms to almost deck level to help reduce that roll. Pedro, the first mate, directs six of us as we lower the giant metal appendage; the feel of thick hemp in my hand is a thrill I won’t soon forget.
The sun dips below Florida and the following seas do their best to send me to the wailing rail, but I remembered to take a Dramamine, which never fails. Several crew go to the lower deck, fiddle with the tiller and, surprise, along with that 15th-century whip staff, we have a 21st-century autopilot that will run off the alternators and steer us all the way.
Miguel puts me on his watch, and in the ruddy light of the navigation cabin, he confides that it’s been a tough voyage. Since the pandemic started, the number of paid visitors has been off at almost every port. In Mexico, the ship and crew were hired to appear in a historical mini-series about Hernán Cortés, but production was shut down after only a few weeks of filming. They returned to the East Coast and sailed up to Maine intending to cross back to Spain last summer, but a bad storm season put the kibosh on that. Instead, they were directed to sail south and catch a ride on a transport ship.
At times, the ship’s history as one of the vessels that opened the door to the devastation of many Caribbean indigenous peoples, including the Taíno in what is now Hispaniola, made them the source of controversy. Despite the desire to promote goodwill and the commonalities between the Old World and New, they angered Native Americans in Bucksport, Maine, who protested the presence of the ship at Maine’s bicentennial celebration last summer. A statement posted by tribal leader Maulian Dana for the Penobscot Indian Nation read in part, “Celebrating the statehood of Maine cannot be done without telling the truth about the history and honoring the Indigenous People. The sailing of this ship is not an honor, especially in our homeland on a river that is our relative and bears our name.”
The seas are well aft of the beam but they’re big, and we roll heavily like a very slow metronome. I’ve done a lot of sailing, but never so far above the water. We stagger about the bridge, reaching for whatever to brace ourselves. On one roll I miss my grab hold and hit the deck, receiving a small lump on my noggin. Welcome to the Santa María.
Breakfast is at the beginning of my next watch, and the crew chat about the day and their lives, all in Spanish, of course. Occasionally one will kindly fill me in with something like, “We are talking about what we will do in Fort Lauderdale.” The food is simple, hot, and nutritious. There is no cook, per se; they take turns making meals, all of which feature a fresh-baked loaf of bread. They eat like rabbits and scatter back to their posts.
We approach Cape Canaveral and the lone rectangular visage of NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), the largest building in Florida, where rockets have been built since 1965. Launch complexes and a lighthouse are nearby, but this far out, the VAB is the only visible object that tracks our progress through the day. The ship has been this way several times, but never when a launch occurred. I can only imagine what it would look like from here to see SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster rocket carefully land on its drone ship.
With a 10-foot draft, we have no choice but to stand well offshore and enter the Gulf Stream, where the goin’ is slowin’. Our speed drops from 6 knots to 2.5. The day is calm, but the ship’s undersized rudder makes it difficult to hold course, and we move snake-like through the water on a 40-degree arc. No one complains, however; they know the whip staff requires up to three strong crew members to operate, an exhausting job that no one desires, so it’s accepted that the SOG is reduced.
The day passes. I climb to the poop and watch the world go by. Flying fish skitter across the water ahead of our bow. We pull abreast of Melbourne, Florida, as the sun sinks low. Capitan Miguel looks concerned as he lights a cigarette.
“We still don’t have a place to dock,” he says. “And bad weather is coming Friday and Saturday with strong winds and big seas.” There aren’t a lot of marinas that can accommodate a historical replica ship with a 10-foot draft, so we’re all hoping that Ángel, who has arrived in Fort Lauderdale, will scare up something for us. I naively suggest anchoring out, but he shakes his head. “No, it’s difficult to anchor, or to find an appropriate spot [in the ICW] that would have enough room for a ship like this.”
The stars heave into view and Venus shines like a searchlight from a rescue helicopter. I scurry up to the bridge for the first watch. Marga Feliu, the lone woman crewmember, has put on a medley of American swing tunes from the ’40’s, and I think of my parents as youngsters, dancing away without a care in the world.
At 2230, Orion rises from the sea with faithful Sirius by his side. Another design quirk of the carrack is that the fo’c’sle completely blocks all forward vision from the helm. The only way to overcome this is by constantly pacing from bulwark to bulwark and craning your neck. By midnight I’m exhausted and crawl in my bunk.
The sun cracks the sea at 0730, and the Santa María glows a golden orange in its light. In the early hours our course was changed to get us out of the Gulf Stream and speed up. We’re barely 5 miles from the beach and condos are clearly visible on the shore; the sea remains in a kindly state.
But by late afternoon clouds have moved in, and sun dogs warn of bad weather coming. Wind and waves increase from the east, the condos glow to the west. By dark, it’s hard to distinguish the blinking non-navigational lights from the ones marking the inlets. What would we do without GPS?
It was the coast of Hispaniola past which Columbus ran on that fateful Christmas night and, exhausted, went down to get some sleep. At midnight in dead calm, the current gently carried the ship onto one of the sand banks. Despite all efforts to free her, “the timbers opened and the ship was lost.” They unloaded the Santa María and used her wooden planks to build a fort, leaving a contingent of crewmembers to search for gold until they returned a year later.
It’s our last night on the ocean, and I feel energized. I have no problem staying alert until midnight when the middle watch shows, and I wish them “buenas noches y hasta mañana.”
In the coal black of the bunk cabin, the many sounds of a ship in motion surround me, and it’s hard to sleep. The heavy weather has arrived, and I’m restless knowing that we are due to arrive at Port Everglades inlet on my final morning watch.
Nature calls at dawn, and I know it’s bad out there because the main deck hatch has been sealed to keep out the rain. I poke my nose out of the aft hatch and see that everyone is in full foul weather gear. The rain is coming down in buckets, and green water is sloshing through the scuppers.
The only heads onboard are under the fo’c’sle, and I make a mad dash through the rain and almost get the door slammed on my fingers. No surprise that breakfast will not be served today. Carlos sees my worried look and smiles.
“Welcome to hell, Roberto,” he says. Every fifth wave is a monster and rolls the ship enough to almost dip the yardarm.
According to his journal, Columbus never experienced weather this rough on the Santa María. But on the return voyage with most of the sailors crammed aboard the Niña, there was a storm so fierce that most of them were on their knees praying and “made a vow that, on arriving at the first land they would all go in procession, in their shirts, to say their prayers in a church dedicated to Our Lady.”
On the bridge, despite the tempest there is equanimity. Everyone knows their job and attends to it, confident that Miguel will guide us in safely. What a great team. A look around and I see that we are within a few miles of the inlet and that we are not alone out here; several container ships are waiting for improving conditions to run the inlet.
At 0830, black clouds and jagged lightning approach from the west, and a palouser shears the foam off the wave tops. Stinging, horizontal rain turns the world white. We roll hard and I slide across the deck, narrowly missing a good knock on the head from the binnacle. Damn you, I think, get up and grab hold of something!
Many times these past four days I’ve felt like little more than the ship’s mascot, the landlubber journalist that Fundación Nao Victoria permitted to tag along. But I finally get a chance to earn my keep; Miguel is so focused on controlling the ship that he discreetly asks me to be the radioman for the entry.
“Roger that,” I say, excited to be of some use. I take a seat in the bridge cabin where Columbus kept his log and called out course changes. I put out a securité alert announcing that we are coming in, then contact the 17th Street bridge tender to request an opening. We enter the inlet, and for the first time in days the yawing stops.
Talk about making an entrance. I’ve approached countless fuel docks in my life, but this is the first time that everyone in the area stops what they’re doing and stares. Out come the cell phones, pointed in our direction.
Our hero of the day, Ángel, is at the dock to take our lines. With dogged determination he has come through with temporary dockage after pleading with every marina in town. At a little after noon, the diesels are shut down, and the crew heads below to find dry clothing. The North American tour of the Santa María is finished. Tomorrow they will move to a yard where the carrack will be prepped for shipment across the sea to Mallorca for some overdue maintenance until she sails again next year, bound for the Great Lakes.