John Patrick Sarsfield is a student of maritime history with a background in engineering. In 1988 he began construction on one of the most unique floating maritime museums in the world. He contracted to have built the first historically correct replica of a 15th Century Caravel. The ship was to be the replica of Christopher Columbus’ ship Nina.

Sarsfield discovered a group of master shipbuilders in Bahia, Brazil who still used design and construction techniques that dated back to the 15th Century. In a shipyard in Valencia, Brazil, using adzes, axes, handsaws, and chisels the shipbuilders began constructing the Nina using hardwoods from the local forests.

John Nance, a British maritime historian and the main researcher for the project, produced a sail plan for the ship. The sail plan represents the Nina as it would have appeared during the eight recorded busiest years following its departure from the Canary Islands in September 1492.

After the three years taken to build the Nina, it sailed from Salvador, Brazil with a crew of 11 to Punta Arenas, Costa Rica, where it was filmed in the movie production of “1492”.

It sailed to over 800 ports in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the Great Lakes and the Midwestern river systems. As unlikely as it may seem the two ships have been to Fort Smith, Ark. and several other sites far inland from the original ships ports of call in the Americas.

In 2004, the replica Pinta used the same shipbuilders and the same tool and was built to accompany the Nina on its Western Hemisphere tours.

The two ships are currently docked at the civic center in Lake Charles. In addition to the general public’s interest there have also been a number of school children taking group tours and gaining knowledge from the all volunteer crew about life aboard the small ships.

The ships are, after all museums. The crew members guiding the tours are very knowledgeable about not only Columbus and his voyages, but about life aboard the ships and what it took to keep them sailing.

The Nina is 65 feet long with an 18 foot beam, or width. The Pinta is slightly longer at 85 feet in length with a 24 foot beam. Both ships have a seven foot draft, which makes it possible to sail up many rivers.

The paint scheme of the ships is a flat black color, for everything above the waterline.

From the main deck to the rigging the ships are faithful to their original design. The decks are sparse with hundreds of feet of ropes of various sizes coiled neatly or run through blocks and pulleys going into the masts above the decks.

The steering is with a wooden rudder that sweeps the sea. The steering is faithful to original design and has no power assistance; it is totally manual, no matter the condition of whatever rough seas may be encountered.

Whenever possible both ships sail under wind power. Crew members have to be able to rig the sails and climb into the rigging the same way the 15th Century sailors did. To comply with maritime regulations and for safety, both ships have small diesel powered engines.

“We sail offshore, under sail, as much as possible. There are times when we go into the Intracoastal Canal, or other waterways, but we like to be “at sea” when we are “at sea,” said Martin Sanger, captain of both ships.

Below decks are the crew’s quarters with slight amenities, such as air conditioners and small kitchen appliances. The sleeping arrangements are spartan with only curtains for privacy. The same holds true for the restroom— there is only a curtain to close off the small space about the size of an airplane restroom.

There are six volunteer crew members on each ship, ranging in age from their 20s up into their 50s. In spite of living in such close quarters there are not that many clashes of temperament.

“We have no tolerance for misbehavior. If for example, there is a fistfight between crewmembers, they are both off of the ship. Fraternization beyond friendship and couples’ relationships are also not allowed,” said Sanger. “We seldom have any trouble. It is possible to form some good lasting friendships among the crewmembers who have served on these ships.”

When in port, the crews are given a night or two in local hotels. This gives them time to sleep in a real bed and to have access to laundry facilities. They also have the opportunity to shower for as long as they like, as opposed to the water conservation that is necessary aboard ship.

The ships will be in Lake Charles until May 8, when they will set sail for their next port, Richmond, Va. At their cruising speed of seven to eight knots, it will take them 14 days to make the voyage. The ships do not really have a home port. They sail year round, staying in warmer waters in the winter and making northern ports in the summer. The maintenance and repairs are done in a shipyard in Alabama.

“We understand there is a river front project underway in Orange. We hope to add Orange to our list of ports of call in two years and visit there,” said Sanger.