A Visit to the Niña

Chris Riley by Chris Riley Updated on August 9, 2019. In

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A Visit to the Niña

The NinaYou probably know the story of Christopher Columbus and the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. If you get the chance to see this reproduction of the Ni�a, now a “sailing museum”, you’ll be very surprised at how small these vessels were.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone would undertake such a long and uncertain journey in such a small ship – especially since many people at the time believed the earth was flat!



Nina's deckThere were probably 25 men aboard the original Niña, including the captain Vicente Pinz�n, the owner Juan Niño, a pilot (navigator), and a surgeon.

When not on watch, they slept on the deck, which was about 66 feet long and 17 feet wide. The hold (under the deck) was used for storage of food, animals (such as pigs and hens) and water.




tiller.jpg (13378 bytes)There were, of course, no engines and the crew relied on the wind for propulsion. When there was no wind, the crew used two very long oars, called sweeps.

The vessel is steered by a rudder with a tiller, shown in the photo at right. A rudder is a flat board that hangs from the back of the boat, attached to the tiller (handle) that is used to turn it.

When the tiller is moved to one side, the rudder moves and the force of water flowing over the rudder causes the boat to turn. You must push the tiller in the opposite direction that you want to turn.

The interesting thing about the Niña’s tiller is that you can’t see where you are going when operating it. That makes it necessary to have a lookout at the bow or in the crow’s nest (a basket-like perch at the top of the mast).

littlemast.jpg (6783 bytes)Watches at sea lasted four hours and the time was kept with an hour glass (or, half-hour glass, actually). The youngest man on every watch kept his eye on the glass. When the sand ran out he turned it and called out the half-hour.

Many of the seamen had no education and could not read or write. They used a pegboard system to record what happened during their watch, including the direction of the wind, their compass course and their estimated speed. The ship’s pilot would check this board to see the progress of the voyage and to make calculations for the next part of the journey.

The Niña’s real name was Santa Clara, she was named for a patron saint. Most Spanish vessels of the time had a religious name, but were most often referred to by nicknames, usually a feminine form of the owner’s name. The Ni�a was owned by Juan Ni�o, hence the nickname Niña.

The “new” Niña was built, by hand, in Brazil in 1991 and took part in the filming of the movie 1492. She is now a sailing museum, sailing to new ports and giving us an opportunity to visit one of the “greatest little ships in the world’s history”. If you get a chance to visit her, don’t miss it!


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