Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The First Caravel Replicas

All three of the 1892 replicas, circa 1905
Background to foreground -
PintaNiña Santa Maria - All images courtesy
U.S. Library of Congress

As previously mentioned in this blog, a caravel replica is under construction in St. Augustine, the Espiritu. This is being converted from the former fishing vessel "Apple Jack", and in many aspects looks like a decent enough project.
The first time caravel replicas were made from existing vessels, though, the results were less than satisfactory. 
We have to go back to 1892 and the work being done in preparation to the 400th anniversary celebration of Columbus' voyage. The Spanish Commission, under its chairman Fernandez Duro and chief researcher Rafael Monleon, had arrived at a final design for the replica Santa Maria. The caravels were treated almost like a secondary consideration. Monleon, an artist by training, felt that caravels were really just smaller vessels, not a separate class altogether. While quite a bit of attention was paid to the Santa Maria, little thought appears to have been given to the Niña and Pinta.
As the date approached, it was apparent that there were insufficient funds to build replicas of the two caravels from the keel up. An American naval officer attached to the project, Lt. C. McCarty Little, worked with the main shipyard involved with the project and found a simple solution. They chose two coaster vessels that had already proven capable of crossing the Atlantic. They were deemed satisfactory for the project, and the conversions commenced.
The problems began with the hull modifications. To make them appear more fifteenth century, the hulls of both vessels were shortened. The effect was a change in the runs below the waterline. The resultant vessels ended up being miserable sailers as a result.
Other problems also existed. 

Niña of 1892

While the Niña at least looked like a caravela latina, the Pinta more resembled a nao or small ship. It looked more like a smaller version of the Santa Maria, from the forecastle to the topsail. Again, this is in keeping with Monleon's belief that caravels were just smaller ships, not a different class.

Pinta of 1892

All three vessels proved to be difficult; while the Santa Maria did make the voyage under canvas, the caravels ended up being towed across the Atlantic. After the 1892 Columbian Exposition, they were to languish on the Great Lakes for the remainder of their days. By 1919, both caravels were gone, one being lost to fire, the other sinking.

Pinta, partially submerged

There are certain lessons here. First was Monleon's insistence that caravels were not a distinct class of vessel. His contemporary, Enrico d'Albertis, considered the caravel to be a wholly different type of vessel, distinct from naos, the class to which the Santa Maria belonged. While d'Albertis worked with the various commissions for the Columbus anniversary, his were not made in replica form, aside from models, though clearly being superior. It appears as if this lack of consideration led to the Niña and Pinta replicas being given secondary status in the reconstructions.
The next lesson has to do with the way sailing vessels operate. By this point in the 19th century, a better understanding of ship design certainly existed. Simply cutting off the rear of vessels, and as a result having runs that ended abruptly and fairly deep at flat sterns, is going to result in poor sailing. Even the flat sterned Santa Maria replica of 1892 had a run that ended closer to the waterline than did the two caravels. Somebody at the shipyards involved should have changed the hull runs; simply tucking the planking below the waterline up and narrowing off the sterns of the vessels would have resulted in better performance under sail. There were still plenty of caravel-like vessels afloat that should have served as reminders. Alas, they did not.
In the case of our Espiritu, the hull is fairly similar to what we might expect a caravel's to be. One major advantage, though, is the engine, something the 1892 replicas could have used but a necessary anachronistic consideration. 
It is not known if the Espiritu is going to be capable of truly sailing, but if the lessons of 1892 are an indicator, it is certainly superior, at least in hull build. 

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