In 2009, Columbus sailed the … Allegheny River?
Well, not quite.
You won’t find Columbus on the North Shore, but you will find replicas of two of his ships. Until Sunday, Nov. 15, the Nina and Pinta are docked in the Allegheny giving tours.
The two ships are basically floating museums run by the Columbus Foundation, which is based in the British Virgin Islands.
Although the ships’ crews generally use diesel power to get them from port to port, the ships — especially the Nina — are historically accurate. A $7 ticket gets an adult an all-access pass to explore the two caravels and ask crewmembers as many questions as they please.
Caravels are a type of small ship with two or three masts developed by the Portugese and used in the 15th century for exploration.
Of course, exploring the ships won’t take long. They aren’t very big. In fact, they’re downright tiny for something that sailed across the Atlantic Ocean. The deck of the Nina, which is the most accurate replica ever built of Columbus’s second flag ship (it became so after the original Santa Maria sank), is only 65 feet long.
The Pinta is larger, with a deck length of 85 feet, but also is not built entirely to scale.
Steve Sanger, first mate on the Pinta, said that because the boat was originally used for day cruises in the Cayman Islands, it was built almost 50 percent larger. This is the first year both ships have toured together, although the Nina has been touring for almost 20 years.
So how did the Nina’s 27, the Pinta’s 33 and the Santa Maria’s 40 crewmen make it from Spain to the Caribbean on those tiny boats?
“They really just go out into the big ocean, drop those sails and see where they go,” Sanger said. “It’s pretty incredible.”
In those days, crewmen slept, lived and ate on the deck, and supplies and livestock were kept down below. The modern crew has nicer living quarters, as well as a stove. The Pinta even has a few private cabins and a cold-water shower.
Sanger said that although they sometimes use the sails to travel on the ocean, it’s difficult to sail on rivers because of how much the wind changes. Plus, he added, the museum ships have a schedule to keep, and it’s best not left up to chance.
Regardless of whether or not the ships use their diesel engines or sails, their top speed is about seven nautical miles per hour, and they typically travel 150 miles in a day.
Since the Columbus Foundation began touring both ships, Sanger said he’s seen an increase in business. Last weekend, they had over 5,000 people, and since they’ve been in Pittsburgh he estimates a little under 1,000 people come each weekday.
“A lot of people have seen the Nina before, but they haven’t seen the Pinta.”
The most common questions Sanger receives are “Why is the ship black?” (because of pine tar that’s used as a sealant) and “Where’s the wheel?”
“No wheel,” he said, shaking his head. These ships were built with tillers as means of steering. Steering wheels, seen in popular movies like “Pirates of the Caribbean,” were not used on ships until later.
The Nina finished construction in 1991 and was used in the filming of the movie “1492.” She was built in Valencia, Brazil and Sanger said it took 20 men 30 months using only hand tools — no power tools — to construct the small ship.
Since she started touring in 1992, she’s logged over 400,000 miles.
The Pinta was also built in Brazil, but was not completed until 2005, and workers used a combination of hand tools and power tools.
The Nina and Pinta tour for about 10 months out of the year, and spend some time in dry dock in Alabama during the winter months for maintenance.
Sanger said the crew members must be willing to work hard and travel constantly. Turnover is high, he said, because people get sick of each other, tire of the small quarters or they decide they want to do something else. Since April they’ve been through 30 volunteers.
Although most crew do not receive payment for their time, what they do get is a place to sleep, meals and tips. If a volunteer stays on long enough, Sanger said they will start drawing a small salary.
“I think the crew we have now is going to last until the end of the season,” he said.
Although they give tours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sanger said they do usually get a chance to go out and see the sites. So far, he’s enjoyed Pittsburgh.
“The weather has been up and down, to say the least,” he said, but the people are nice. “They’re all so thankful.”