I'd read in the paper that this "ship," supposed to the most historically accurate replica of Columbus's Nina, would be at the Port of San Francisco this weekend. I pedalled down there to check her out.
Seeing the Nina for the first time from The Embarcadero, my first thought was, "Columbus crossed the Atlantic in that?" The thing looks like an overstuffed canoe with a bad case of acne.
Needless to say, I'd imagined something a little bigger. Perhaps not on the scale of the HMS Victory, but something at least along the lines of the U.S.S Constitution. The Nina is devoid of anything resembling decoration or creature comforts. The captain's quarters, where Columbus stayed, was a tiny cabin below decks just four feet high. The rest of the crew stayed on deck, 24-hours a day. With cattle and pigs. The effluvia and the reek that went with it must have been almost unbearable.
It's fashionable today to denounce Columbus and his voyage of discovery. Columbus, it is said, was a racist and a coward and a fool who didn't know where he was going. He was the lead figure in a veritable holocaust brought by people with superior technology against those with inferior technology. Maybe so. Certainly, Columbus's voyage changed what are now known as the Americas forever.
But once you step aboard the Nina you realize that the purely technological explanation is dubious at best. This thing, patched together with wooden pins and pitch, hardly represents the acme of technology in any age. Rather, the fact that the voyage was undergone at all represents an extraordinary confluence of ideas, not the least of which included the realization that the earth could be known and therefore circumnavigated -- even if Columus himself thought the earth was shaped like a breast the nipple of which was the Garden of Eden.
No, the men who went aboard dinky little boats like the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria were men made after a fashion rarely seen today, men who put everything on the line on a roll of the bones. Some won, though Columbus lost.