While returning to Newport from sailing recently, I passed the Nina and the Pinta. They were docked at Fort Adams and open to the public for a little show and tell. As a I passed the stern of Pinta, I yelled out to a crew member if I could pick his brain about the replicas the next day. “Sure, stop by, we’re here ‘til Monday,” said the crew member. Back at my mooring, I started Googling his backstory. One fact got my attention right from the jump; Columbus started sailing when he was 11.
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Fail again. Fail better.” — Samuel Beckett
After learning about Asia from his studies of Marco Polo, Columbus thought that he could reach Japan by sailing east to west. Ahem, he ended up in the Bahamas instead of Japan; however, undaunted, he would make three more voyages that would change the world — with a little more accuracy. There is no way for forward movement in anything unless there is risk, reward and failure. This firebrand sailor and navigator had clear vision regarding his ability, and he would demonstrate this while on his first voyage.
According to modern-day crew member, Dave Zenk “The Nina only sailed well going downwind. These boats were for fishing and hauling cargo, and their hull speed helped them outrun pirates. Nina could go 11 knots off the wind.” This 50-foot, three-masted, shallow-draft, fast-mover, was Columbus’s favorite of the three vessels on his first voyage west. Nina sailed with a crew of 20. The sailors were illiterate, and worked with rudimentary navigational charts and instruments: traverse board, quadrant and compass. Given all of this, it was Columbus’s belief in his vision and his forthright mindset that would get the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria to make landfall on his first voyage. He calculated he would need a month to get where he was going.
A month into the voyage, however, things were not looking good. The captains, crew and officers wanted the ships to turn back to Portugal; however, this was not an option. For Columbus, at this point, failure was definitely not an option. These ships carried enough provisions for approximately a month. Below decks is where livestock, water, and other provisions were stored. Although he had stopped at the Canary Islands to re-supply, the ships were very low on food and water. Moreover, what meat was left was becoming rancid. Columbus stood fast, and said if they turned back they would perish anyway—the guy was salty—and finally everyone acquiesced to their Commander. Then, on Oct. 11, 1492, the ships saw birds, seaweed, and branches with green leaves on them. That evening Columbus also saw what he described as a light, “like a little wax candle.” At 2 a.m. the next morning came the shouts, “Tierra! Tierra!” from sailor Rodrigo de Triana. He had been standing watch on board Pinta. Columbus made landfall in San Salvador; however, some folks split hairs over his actual landing site; bottom line, is he made it, and this opened further exploration of the world.
Roaming around Nina I found some interesting things. Her tiller is about 12 inches in circumference, and about 12 feet long. The helmsman would steer her with a nudge of his knees and hip. As stated earlier, she was shallow draft, and very fast off the wind; I saw no reef points on the square and lateen sails. This boat was designed for speed; but she did not sail well to windward – she side slipped because of her shallow draft. She carried 12 four hundred pound anchors. Anchors were often lost because charts and soundings were not accurate. The crew stayed on the open deck. The helm station and instruments were out of the weather, protected by the aft deck, which is where an officer could call out compass headings. Working this rig was all done from the deck — going aloft to make sail was not necessary.
When Chuck Yeager flew the X1 and broke the sound barrier, the engineers suggested that the aircraft could possibly lose its stability nearing Mach 1 — dangerous stuff. Yeager’s intuition told him that was not necessarily the case. He believed in his airplane and his skill set. Columbus probably faced his own “doubting Thomases.” I’m sure that some saw his voyage as a fool’s errand. His ambition and intuition served him for three of his voyages. On his fourth things went sideways. He put together four ships to continue procuring, and charting land for the Royals. Unfortunately, a hurricane left him stranded on Jamaica for a year before he was rescued. Finally, this man of great sailing skill and vision, succeeded in his mission, and found new lands to explore and a complex legacy for all of us to ponder.