Columbus’ ships sail into Peoria’s riverfront

By Holly Eitenmiller For Chronicle Media

Exact replicas of Christopher Columbus’ ships, the Pinta and Nina were docked Sept. 15 at 110 SW Water St. until Sept. 25. A replica of the third and largest vessel, the Santa Maria cannot be sailed along routes where water depth and bridge heights prohibit passage, therefore only two replicas were built by The Columbus Foundation. (Photo by Holly Eitenmiller / for Chronicle Media)

The skeletal masts and Medieval flags and the pair of Caravels docked at Peoria’s riverfront were not specters — they are exact replicas of Christopher Columbus’ ships, the Nina and the Pinta.

Funded and built by The Columbus Foundation, the reproductions furled sails and anchored at the foot of Water Street Sept. 14 and were open for tours Sept. 15-25. Like his mates, crewmember Thomas Vaeth has an encyclopedic knowledge of the vessels and the famous admiral who commandeered them.

“The Nina was built in Valenca, Brazil starting in 1988 and it was finished in time for the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landfall in 1992,” Vaeth said, as he likely has countless times in the three years he’s been with the group. “They only had time for the Nina, which was Columbus’ favorite. He liked her captain best.”

And the story continues. Admiral Columbus, he said, loathed to sail with Pinta Captain Martin Pinzon, and preferred the company of his brother Captain Vincente Pinzon. The Nina also maneuvered better than its sister ships.

A teacher accompanies a group of students on a tour of the Christopher Columbus replica ships on Peoria’s waterfront Sept. 22. Admission funds are used to maintain the ships and the crew subsist on tips and donations from tourists. (. (Photo by Holly Eitenmiller / for Chronicle Media)

Of the three, the Santa Maria, a Carrack-style, was rather behemoth in comparison, some 50 tons heavier than the Nina. That is why there is not a replica of her beside the others.

“The Santa Maria would be too tall to clear most bridges,” Vaeth said, “and most rivers are too shallow for it.”

It’s doubtful Columbus would have minded its absence, having once said the Santa Maria, which was slowest of the three, “sailed like a pig.” In December, 1942, a cabin boy ran the ship aground in Cap-Haiten, Haiti where it sank the next day.

The Columbus Foundation completed the Pinta in 2005 and the two ships have traveled in a continuous circuit since then. Around March, the ships can be found at ports around the Gulf side of Florida. From there, they wind their way to Florida’s east coast, then north.

By May, the two are leaving the Carolinas, headed toward New York and New Jersey, afterward taking the river ways south.

“We hit the Gulf, the Atlantic then we take to the five rivers,” Vaeth said, “Illinois, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Ohio …”

Twelve crew members, about six per vessel, sail with replicas. Their quarters are below deck, where Columbus’ crew would have kept their store. Enough cargo, he said, for a year at sea, which means half-a-century ago, those sailors slept on the deck.

Except for the captains and Columbus, whose meager accommodations were below deck, in cramped and poorly-ventilated spaces. Today’s crew enjoy air conditioning that he said “works sometimes”, as well as auxiliary engines, as mandated by the Coast Guard.

Crewmember Josh Dummitt, 26, knits in his spare time aboard the Nina. All crewmembers are volunteers who are asked to donate around three weeks’ time to The Columbus Foundation. Dummitt, of Connecticut, joined the crew three months ago and many of his fellow sailors have volunteered for several years. (Photo by Holly Eitenmiller / for Chronicle Media)

But, whenever possible, the crew unfurl the sails and take to the wind, a complicated process in which all members are educated. “That’s the first thing we teach everyone is how to run the sails,” Vaeth said. “These ships are built as the originals were, and there’s a lot for the volunteers to learn.”

That’s right, all of the crewmembers are volunteers. All proceeds from admission, which usually runs around $8 per person, fund the operation and upkeep of the ships. The crew live on tips and donations from tourists, unless they have another source of income.

But they don’t seem to mind. Though The Columbus Foundations asks that volunteers give at least three weeks’ time to the organization, many stay aboard much longer. Vaeth, who is from Hudson, New York, has been with the group for three years.

Crewman Jeff Hicks set sail from Florida two years ago. Earlier this year, Josh Dummitt of Connecticut stepped on board and said he has no plans yet to return to his “landlubber” ways. Of all of the ports they’ve seen, most of the volunteers favor the Great Lakes Area.

“You get out there where you really can’t see land and you’re surrounded by water, and you really get a feel for what it must have been like back then, 500 years ago, on these ships,” Vaeth said.

Among the ships’ displays are miniature replicas of each vessel. The scale reproductions are examples of “blueprints” which were used during Christopher Columbus’ time. Ship builders of the 1400s were often illiterate, and the replicas served as a means for them to accurately construct each ship. (Photo by Holly Eitenmiller / for Chronicle Media)

Built to exact standards, in the same manner as the originals were in Brazil, it is not difficult to let one’s imagination roam into the century’s old past, when Columbus set sail for new worlds. Shipwrights used the same traditional tools, adzes, axes, handsaws and chisels, to build the facsimiles.

They also employed the same techniques, such as Mediterranean Whole Moulding and crafted the ships with wood from the forests of Bahia, wood that was then treated with pine tar, as it was then. In their spare time, Vaeth and his mates “swab the decks” so that all of the woodwork and other features remain shiny and spotless for visitors.

The Columbus Foundation website may be found, and the ships, after departing Peoria Sept. 25, will dock again in Cape Girardeau, Mo., until Oct. 8, for those who may have missed them in Peoria.




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