It’s always exciting to discover something new to do in Grand Cayman, and the Island’s newest floating attraction is sure not to disappoint. It’s the tall ship Santa Clara, also known as the Nina ll, now accepting curious passengers for excursions on the North Sound.
What makes her so special is that the Nina is an amazingly accurate replica of one of the three ships that crossed the Atlantic on Columbus’ expedition to the new world in 1492.
Completed in 2005, the Nina ll is the second of two replica Ninas constructed in Valenca, a sleepy fishing village in Bahia, Brazil. Largely handcrafted by local artisans who have passed down the Mediterranean whole moulding shipbuilding technique for centuries, the two ships are the most authentic Columbus replica ships ever constructed.
Under operations manager Leslie Ebanks, it’s now sailing Cayman’s clear blue waters, with Captain Joe Hopkins at the helm, and crewed by Cesar Disilva, Janet McCoy and Randy Ebanks.
But it’s not just that fact that the Nina ll is open to visitors that’s going to spark some interest. The arrival of the ship in Cayman is a saga in itself.
It all starts with the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage, when in 1986, the Columbus Foundation was formed in the British Virgin Islands to raise money to build the three ships that Christopher Columbus used in his encounter with the New World.
These ships, as many may recall, were the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.
‘The Niña, like the Pinta, was a caravel, which was a common trading vessel in use during the Age of Discovery,’ says Michele Ebanks, director of marketing for the Nina ll.
Speedy, easily maneuverable and with a shallow draught, caravels were used as cargo carriers, warships, patrol boats, and even corsairs, ships under French command charged with raiding the vessels of France’s rivals.
At the height of the caravel era from the early 1400s to the 1530’s, the Portuguese and Spanish used caravels in many of their explorations: Diaz used them to chart the Coast of Africa, Columbus took them on all four of his voyages; and they were used by Vasco de Gama in 1502 and accompanied Magellan in 1519.
But their days were numbered: once Columbus established transatlantic routes, caravels ceded way to larger cargo vessels as well as warships, leading to the ascendance of the galleon.
Sailors will be interested to note that thanks to naval historian Jonathan Nance, head researcher on the project, the Nina is rigged as a Caravela Redonda, which means it has square sails on the main and foremast for sailing downwind, and lateen (triangular) sails on the mizzen masts.
Historians believe that of all his ships, the Nina was Columbus’ favorite. And before too much confusion arises, a bit of explanation is in order about the ship’s name. The ship was actually named ‘Santa Clara’ after the patron saint of Moguer, the home of her master-owner Juan Nino of Moguer, and nicknamed Nina after her owner.
The original Nina completed Columbus’ first voyage, and when Columbus had the pick of the whole Merchant Marine on his second voyage he selected her out of 17 ships as his flagship for an exploratory voyage to Cuba, and purchased a half share in her.
Enduring many pirate-filled adventures that the enthusiastic Nina ll crew will only be too happy to recount for interested passengers, the Nina logged at least 25,000 miles under Columbus’ command.
That’s why in 1988, the Columbus Foundation, faced with building only one ship, hired John Patrick Sarsfield, an American engineer, maritime historian, and expert on Portuguese caravels, to design and construct a replica of the Niña in Valenca, where he had come across the town’s shipbuilding heritage.
That way, the traditional techniques could be easily preserved, and shipwrights had access to traditional tools such as axes, adzes, hand saws and chisels, as well as utilizing traditional construction methods. In addition, the surrounding tropical forests were a terrific source for the various naturally-shaped timbers necessary to build a large wooden ship.
Passengers on the Nina ll should take a moment to marvel at the main mast, which measures nearly 60 feet and is made from a tree that is over 200 years old.
The first replica Nina, completed in 1991 is used by the Columbus Foundation, based in the British Virgin Islands, as a floating museum. It’s also made its mark on film, appearing in the Ridley Scott feature film, 1492. Its voyage of over 4,000 miles to Costa Rica for the filming represents the first time that a discovery caravel replica has made a successful unescorted open ocean passage of any considerable distance, and has since visited over 300 ports as a sailing museum.
In 2003 the decision was taken to build a second ship that would take on a more active role. It has found a permanent home in Cayman, where visitors have the opportunity for a one-of-a-kind experience.
‘Regulations bar the first Nina from carrying passengers. Our visitors in Cayman then have the unique privilege of being able to go for a sail on the Nina, the only place in the world that it can be done,’ says Marketing manager Michele Ebanks.
Nina II, now berthed at Safehaven, is now open for day sailing trips, sunset cruises and private charters. It’s significantly more luxurious than what the original sailors would have endured, forced as they were to sleep on the constantly wet decks above a reeking hold full of livestock and provisions – today, cushioned bench seating can comfortably accommodate 100 people.
Belowdecks, the 800 sq. ft. air conditioned main salon and galley is finished in wood, granite and marble from Brazil, making the ship an ideal venue for get-togethers and events no matter the weather.
Under the guidance of the seasoned crew, passengers can take the helm, set the sails, learn the ropes and sailing techniques of 15th Century ships; sunbathe on the poop deck; or just relax and watch a video of the building of the ship in the Brazilian jungle.
Sunset sails are scheduled for Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Residents will appreciate the BYOB format, where on a recent trip, passengers were clearly enjoying the chance to sip on nice glass of wine of their choice while relaxing under a moonlit sky, listening only to the lap of the waves and the wind whistling in the sails.
On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, morning sails take place from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. The cost for all sails is CI$ 35.00 or US$ 45.00; Children 12 and under are CI$ 18.00 or US$ 23.00. A 20% discount will be given to residents.
Private charters will also be offered at CI$750/hour or US$935/hour for groups up to 50 and CI$1500/hour or US$1875/hour for groups up to 100. Again, a 20% discount will be given to residents and local companies.