Lakeshore Report

Historic Ships Sail In To Michigan City

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Two very unique ships recently sailed into the harbor in Michigan City. Their mission is to serve as floating museums and remind visitors of the ingenuity and skill that helped shape the world as we know it. Set against an industrial backdrop, the vessels also provide a striking contrast to modern shipping on The Great Lakes.
“These are what we call space shuttles of the fourteen hundreds,” says Captain Stephen Sanger of the Niña. “These ships were used for exploration during that time. These ships are what are known as Portuguese caravels, and Columbus found out they were extremely sturdy ships.”
The Niña and Pinta are replicas of the ships Christopher Columbus used during his voyage to the Americas beginning in 1492.
Sanger reminds visitors that Columbus made four voyages in total, totaling about twelve years, and the first voyage lasted a little under a year. During that trip the Santa Marie went down, the largest of the three ships. The later voyages were about two to three years a piece.
Sanger says “The Niña is an exact replica, constructed entirely by hand, and the Pinta’s a little larger than scale.”
While Columbus’ actions after he crossed the Atlantic Ocean are often the topic of debate, the voyage itself remains an impressive feat, and that’s what motivated historians to recreate his ships about twenty years ago.
Back in the mid eighties, it was John Sarsfield who discovered a group of shipwrights in a little town called Valenca, Brazil that were still utilizing the same techniques that they did back over five hundred years ago,” says Sanger. “So they were still using the same techniques that dated back to the time where these ships were actually constructed. And the techniques were passed down through generations, and it was eighth generation Portuguese shipwrights that constructed the two ships that you see here. They built the ship entirely by what their family taught them throughout generations. There were no blueprints. But in terms of the rigging and what they carried on board these ships, that was all very well documented in Columbus’ log.”
The Age of Exploration may be over, but The Great Lakes remain a thriving and vital transportation route. A 2009 report from the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers found that the prosperity of many of the nation’s key industries – including iron, steel, and energy production – are dependent on The Great Lakes navigation system. Captain Sanger says for his historic ships, the lakes provide a very different experience than the oceans.
“The Great Lakes, if the weather’s rough, then obviously the waves are a lot closer together than they are out on the ocean, so it can bob like a cork a lot more on the Great Lakes than you would out on the open ocean.”
Just as modernization has reduced the number of workers in many industries, these ships and their limited routes are crewed by fewer men than the ones sailed by Columbus.
Sanger says “We travel about six or seven on each ship, on average. Columbus had twenty-four aboard the Pinta and twenty-six aboard the Niña. They all worked, ate and slept out on the main deck, so there wasn’t a hold, sleeping quarters for the crew. They were all just in the main deck, open up to the elements, where down below they would have cargo and livestock.”
Despite the primitive conditions, Sanger says many of the crew remain drawn to the marine lifestyle, and these unique ships.
“We all sleep on the ship practically year-round, and all the crew are volunteer. We ask for three to four weeks, and some of our crew members have been on three or four years.”

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