Columbus' Ships

The Santa Maria:

The Santa Maria was a nao, the flagship of the Columbus fleet. It was a merchant ship, between 200-600 tons. The boat's length was 75 feet with a wide beam, 25 feet. This allowed it to carry more people and cargo. She had a deep draft, 6 feet. The vessel had three masts, a mainmast, a foremast, and a mizzenmast. Five sails altogether were attached to these masts. Each mast carried one large sail. The foresail and mainsail were square; the sail on the mizzen was a triangular sail known as a lateen mizzen. The ship had a smaller topsail on the mainmast above the mainsail and on the foremast above the foresail. In addition, the ship carried a small square sail, a spritsail, on the bowsprit. In the diagram above, the spritsail cannot be seen. Each sail was attached to a long wooden pole, a yard, which spread the sail out across the top and held it open. The Santa Maria also had a crow’s nest on the mainmast. It had a raised stern. There was a forecastle in the bow of the ship. Most of the force used to drive this ship came from the largest mainsail. The other sails were used for "trimming." Though many sailors believed that the Santa Maria was a fine ship for her day, Columbus was not so impressed. He did not think it was a ship fit for discovery. Because of the deep draft, the vessel was not suited for sailing near reefs and shallow island waters. In fact, the craft ran aground off Hispaniola and had to be abandoned

The Nina and Pinta:

These two ships in the fleet of Columbus were known as caravels. A caravel had a shallower draft than a nao, so it could move around in the water more easily. A caravel was150-300 tons. It did not have much cargo space, but it was able to sail over difficult waters easily. It was square-rigged on its foremasts and mainmasts, but used a lateen sail on the mizzen to help in tacking. It was so easy to control that sailors could easily explore shallow bays and the mouths of rivers. A caravel could hold about twenty crew members. They usually slept on the deck and would go below only if the weather was bad. Pinta was a caravel, a smaller, lighter, and faster ship than the tubby Santa Maria. She probably had three masts, and most likely carried sails like those of Santa Maria, except for the topsail, and perhaps the spritsail.

How fast did they go?
As you can guess, the speed of a sailing vessel depends on the speed of the wind. Over several days, ships of Columbus's time would average a little less than 4 knots. Top speed for the vessels was about 8 knots. These speeds were quite typical for ships at this time. Such a ship would cover about 90 or 100 miles in a day. Of the three ships on the first voyage, the Santa Maria was the slowest, and the Pinta was the fastest.

Columbus' ships covered approximately 150 miles a day. His seafaring instincts were extraordinary. His crews used a compass for direction and a chip log and reel to measure speed. A sailor counted how many knots were let off the reel in a certain amount of time. The sailors could figure the distance they had traveled by multiplying their speed by the amount of time. Columbus, however, relied on dead reckoning, meaning he used his experience, intuition, observations, and guesswork to determine his ships' positions.

Life Aboard Ship
Columbus' crew worked in four-hour shifts. Their duties included pumping bilge, cleaning the deck, working the sails, and checking the ropes and cargo. When they were off duty, they slept anywhere they could find space. Columbus himself often spent days without sleep. Only the captain had private quarters. The sailors' lives were hard, and they often died from disease, hunger, and thirst. Religion was the central focus of their lives. Every day began with prayers and hymns and ended with religious services in the evenings. The crew received one hot meal a day cooked over an open fire in a sandbox on deck. Their diet consisted of ship's biscuit, pickled or salted meat, dried peas, cheese, wine, and fresh-caught fish.


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