Every kid of my generation was awash in tales of the sea: Errol Flynn in “Sea Hawk,” Abbott and Costello in “Meet Captain Kidd,” Gregory Peck in “Captain Horatio Hornblower” and “Treasure Island.” From the ’80s, who can forget the “Goonies” and the pirate ship as she slips her moors hidden deep in a cave? Most recently, the genre has been revived through the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies.
Those of us who were in the Navy (although all my time was in a Marine unit) think of “Mutiny on the Bounty” and “Master and Commander.”
So, when I heard that replicas of two of Christopher Columbus’ ships during his first voyage to the New World would be docking in Louisville, I wanted to get aboard. The Pinta and Nina replicas are floating museums built and operated by the non-profit Columbus Foundation. They travel all over the navigable waterways of the Western Hemisphere providing educational tours to public schools with hundreds of students visiting when she docks.”
I contacted the foundation and secured a spot for its travel from Louisville to Cincinnati earlier this month. I sailed (not really sailed, because of Coast Guard regulations) onboard the Nina.
Our trip took four days, and we navigated more than 125 nautical miles of the Ohio River. Due to Coast Guard regulations dealing with barge traffic, river locks, wind resistance and water depths, the tall ships cannot operate under sail. As such the Nina and the Pinta are outfitted with diesel-powered engines and reach speeds of about 8.5 mph.
The Nina is the most authentic replica of a 15th century caravel on the water. She is 65 feet on the beam, and she weighs 73 tons. She carries 35,000 plus pounds of ballast. The Pinta is 85 feet on the beam and weighs more than 100 tons. She is actually about 40 percent larger than her historical original. She is a day trip vessel capable of taking parties of 100 on short cruises.
Both ships can run under full sail and do so in open waters. Built in Brazil and home ported in the British Virgin Islands, they have traveled as far away as Costa Rica and navigated the Panama Canal. They have navigated the rivers and intercoastal waterways of the United States numerous times.
When you crew aboard either of these ships, that is exactly what you do. Everything from relashing the sails, helmsman duties, forward watch, swabbing the decks, restaining the hull – you name it, the crew does it.
It’s all volunteer. Crew members fill out an application on the Columbus Foundation website, and based on your application, you could be selected to help crew one of the vessels. Experience in sailing is not required, and the people I crewed with were not experienced (or professional) sailors.
While all of them had crewed onboard previously, their experience was limited. Kathy was a homemaker with grown children from the Midwest. Tara was an educator with a master’s in developmental psychology from Louisville. Mike, the ship’s cook and first mate, had worked in state government for many years. The only paid and professional sailor on the ship was the captain.
Capt. Kyle started out on the Nina as a crew member on her very first voyage in 1991, when she sailed to Costa Rica to participate in the filming of the movie “1492: Conquest of Paradise” (an historical film about Columbus). Her 4,000-mile trek was the first time a replica caravel had made an unescorted voyage of any distance. Do not forget these ships steer with the rudder and a tiller (just like a small 10 HP engine on a Jon boat); the ships wheel would not be invented for another 100 years.
Aboard the ship, my previous naval experience was put to use right away. I was given the forward watch for most of the journey making sure we stayed in the shipping lanes, out of the path of the numerous barges, and keeping an eye out for any small craft that might get too close. I also helped put new coats of stain on the ship when we stopped for two nights in Rising Sun, Ind. At that time, the ships made general repairs, performed maintenance and resupplied the stores.
My first two days on the ship were awkward. The ship’s crew had been together previously and had sailed far together on this voyage as well. I was an outsider, not just there to help, but to ask questions, take pictures and pick their brains about the experience.
But with tight quarters and intermingling jobs on deck, it doesn’t take long to get in tune with one another and to bond. We actually got closer faster because we were short crewed – four crewmen (including me) and the captain.
There are no showers. You get a chance to make landfall and a hotel shower once every three days or so. You must be a people person, ready to answer questions from any direction eight hours a day. If following orders, close quarters, musty smells and outhouses offend you, this is not for you.
Below decks is cramped with quarters to accommodate seven to 10 crewmembers on bunks about 6 feet long, stacked two high, about 11 inches separating the top and bottom bunks.
The galley is about 8 feet by 14 feet with a stovetop, microwave, sinks, freezer and fridge. The ship’s cook did well with limited facilities, whipping up some of the best fried chicken ever (outside of my mother’s). The ship has a generator onboard, so there is limited electrical power (again due to Coast Guard regulations). So we were able to have some air-conditioning below decks though not much. In between duties, we tried to watch the same movie “Riddick” about eight times; I don’t think we ever got through it. The head (bathroom) is anything but comfortable, a seat and a light, and not much headroom. I was thankful for a public restroom in port.
While accommodations may seem rough by today’s standards, remember this: The crew of the original Nina was 26 strong. Below decks was reserved for supplies, storage, livestock and for carrying things back on the return trip. You slept on deck anywhere you could find a place to lay your head.
So why do the volunteers do it? No pay, in the heat, in the cold, in the rain, in the fog? In some cases, you travel all night, so you work in duty shifts.
I got a similar answer every time I asked the question: “I saw them in another place and thought I would like to do that,” “I like the idea of spreading their message,” or “I just wanted to do it.”
That’s how I felt, too. I just wanted to do it; and I am so very glad I did. If you get the chance, you should too. This program runs on the volunteer efforts of the crew; without them it isn’t possible.
If you would like to volunteer aboard one of the Columbus Foundation vessels, visit www.thenina.com and fill out a crew application.
Frankfort native Wayne Stacy has lived all over the world as a member of the U.S. Military. He is now a landscape photographer in Frankfort. To view more of his work, go to www.photographic-magic.com.