June 23, 2011

History at the helm

Replicas of Christopher Columbus' Nina and Pinta sailing ships arrive in South Portland, where visitors are welcome to come aboard.

Sophie Gould, Staff Writer

click image to enlarge

Replicas of the Pinta, left, and the smaller Nina navigate past Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse as they arrive in Portland Harbor on Wednesday for a five-day visit.

Photos by John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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First mate Vic Bickel and crew member Alex Roberts secure the Nina to the dock at South Port Marine in South Portland, where the vessels – which travel the Americas as floating museums – will stay through Monday.

Additional Photos Below

Starting today, visitors can tour the replicas at South Port Marine in South Portland from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Monday.

For more about the tours, visit thenina.com


View South Port Marine in a larger map

"Haul away!" called Capt. Joe Hopkins, his blond ponytail blowing in the wind.

With a toss of the bowline, his crew brought the Pinta alongside the dock. The Nina wasn't far behind, square sails furled, water lapping at its black hull.

The two replicas of Christopher Columbus' 15th-century caravels pulled into port Wednesday afternoon at South Port Marine.

The vessels, which travel the Americas as floating museums, will spend the next five days in South Portland. Visitors can tour the ships between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., starting today. Admission for adults costs $8. Information about tours is online at thenina.com.

The Columbus Foundation, based in the British Virgin Islands, launched the Nina in 1991 and the Pinta in 2005. The ships were built in the village of Valenca, Brazil, using 15th-century tools and techniques, after years of historical research.

The boats travel 11 months out of the year, stopping at ports to educate people about the history of the Portuguese caravels. They spend the 12th month in a shipyard for repairs and maintenance.

"Next stop is Bridgeport, Connecticut," said Morgan Sanger, founder of the Columbus Foundation and captain of the Nina. The ships will spend the winter near Key West, Fla.

Sixty-five feet long and weighing 75 tons, the Nina is the most historically accurate copy ever built of the ship that brought Columbus to the New World in 1492. The Pinta, at 85 feet and 101 tons, is slightly bigger than the original.

Hopkins, who has sailed on the Pinta for four years, said the crew members on both ships are mainly students or retirees who are looking for adventure. "Some people fall in love with it," he said.

"We have volunteers that join port to port," said Sanger. "The hardest ones to find are cooks.

"We look for people who don't get seasick, who are willing to live in close quarters with little privacy and do 16 hours on duty a day," he said. "It's not an easy life, but the travel is what they appreciate."

Life aboard the rustic ships isn't for everyone.

"Sometimes it doesn't work out," said Hopkins. "The shortest I've seen is about a week."

Cole Lathrop joined the crew of the Nina two months ago. He was living in Stuart, Fla., when the ship arrived.

"They pulled into my home port," said Lathrop. "I asked if they needed an extra deckhand. It's been a blast."

Lathrop doesn't mind the trials of life at sea. "We've hit some rough weather, about 45 miles per hour winds over the port side recently, but that's just playtime for me," he said, grinning.

Though they can be sailed only by hand, the ships have engines and electronic navigation.

"For insurance and the Coast Guard, we have to have satellite, etc.," said Sanger. "We couldn't get away with rowing ships like they used to.

"We've been through the Panama Canal 10 times," said Sanger. "Total, we've done 300,000 miles." At about six miles an hour, that's a lot of hours at sea.

"We had a great sail today," said Vic Bickel, the first mate on the Nina. "Beautiful, actually. We came in under full sail on both ships, seeing five knots on the way in."

"The tide was with us, and the wind as well," said Hopkins. "Square-rigged boats were made to go downwind." 

Staff Writer Sophie Gould can be contacted at 791-6354 or at:



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Additional Photos

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A crew member aboard the Pinta secures lines at South Port Marine in South Portland on Wednesday. At 85 feet long and 101 tons, the Pinta is slightly bigger than the original 15th-century Portuguese caravel it is meant to replicate.


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