- Associated Press - Friday, September 23, 2016

DECATUR, Ala. (AP) - To the average person, the two wooden sailing vessels berthed at Riverwalk Marina look like they might be scaled-down versions of Columbus’ famous ships that crossed the Atlantic in 1492.

They’re not. In fact, they’re about as close as anyone can get to true replicas of the ships that helped change the course of human history.

The Nina replica measures just 65 feet long, and its sister ship, the Pinta, measures 85 feet. The real Pinta was probably only about 70 feet long, said Nina Capt. Stephen Sanger. Exact dimensions of the real ships that made the five-week voyage have not survived.

Both ships are known by nicknames, a common Spanish practice at the time. The Nina’s real name was Santa Clara, and the Pinta’s real name is unknown.

Built and maintained by the Columbus Foundation, the ships are part of a floating museum designed to educate the public about the caravel, a vessel favored by Columbus and other early explorers. They have no home ports, continually sailing around the country to take on visitors and occasionally taking on new volunteer crew.

The ships sailed up the Tennessee River on Thursday, attracting scattered onlookers as the Pinta fired off a signal cannon. Waiting on the dock, 8-year-old Roman Mathis recited that Columbus was an Italian explorer who sailed to the New World for Spain.

His parents gave Roman and his 5-year-old sister, Lucia, a day off from school so they could see the ships docking.

“I want them to experience more, and they can’t get this kind of hands-on learning at school,” said their mother, Michelle. “I want them to see the sails and how different the ships were compared to ships today.”

A few historical concessions have been made for convenience and to comply with U.S. Coast Guard safety regulations. Both ships have diesel engines and modern electronic navigation equipment.

The 14 crew members who operate the two ships sleep below deck, unlike their 15th century counterparts, who slept on deck in much more crowded conditions. The Nina carried a crew of 24 and the Pinta 26 on Columbus’ first voyage.

Jeff Hicks, the ships’ cook, said Columbus’ crew didn’t eat as well, mostly subsisting on salted meats. Cooking fires were too great a risk, he said.

But mostly, the ships are the same as in Columbus’ day, coated with pine tar to preserve their timbers and sporting canvas sails. Their 7-foot rudders are controlled with hand tillers instead of steering wheels, which had not yet been invented.

The ships weren’t designed for ocean crossings, but they survived the journey. The Nina made the round-trip voyage three times. Sanger said he has personally had the replicas in 14-foot seas off the west coast without trouble.

The most common question asked by visitors, according to Sanger, is where is the Santa Maria? The largest and most famous of Columbus’ ships would be impractical for navigating inland waterways, he said.

Sunk off the coast of Haiti during the first voyage, the ship was Columbus’ least favorite. Sanger said he described it as “a dog” on the first voyage for its slow speed and its clumsy handling. The Nina was by far the explorer’s favorite.

Columbus himself has a somewhat questionable place in history. Credited with opening the Americas to European exploration and colonization while on a quest for new trade routes to the East Indies, he also established forced labor policies with native populations and never admitted he had found a new continent, believing he had discovered the outer islands of China.

Most educated people at the time knew the world was round, Sanger said.

Beginning Friday, the ships are open to the public daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. No reservations are required, but admission fees up to $8 are charged depending on age. The ships will leave Decatur early Wednesday.

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Information from: The Decatur Daily, http://www.decaturdaily.com/decaturdaily/index.shtml

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