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Age of Explorationtable of contents
Christopher Columbus

Columbus departed Palos, Spain, with three ships on August 3, [1492]. The Nina, a lateen-rigged caravel, was captained by Martin Alonzo Pinzon. The Pinta, a square-rigged caravel was captained by Pinzon's brother, Vicente Yanez. The Santa Maria, a nao, was Columbus' flagship. The nao was large and had a round hull compared to the lightly built caravels with narrow hulls. The Santa Maria was slow and unwieldy during the long ocean voyage. She had a huge square sail on her main mast, a smaller one on the foremast, and a lateen-rigged sail on the mizzenmast on the high poop at the stern. The three ships together carried 104 men with equipment for repairing ships, and supplies.

Martin Alonzo Pinzon

Vincente Yanez

The Nina, circa 1490, 1991 model, Roger Hambidge, modelmaker, The Mariners’ Museum Collection

After a stop at the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa, Columbus had the Nina converted to square sails because it was lagging behind. The crews loaded fresh water and fruit aboard. On September 6, 1492, the ships got underway, sailing into uncharted seas, out of sight of land.

Columbus' ships covered approximately 150 miles a day. His seafaring instincts were extraordinary. His crews used a compass for direction and a chip log (a knotted line with a wooden weight attached at the end) to measure speed.

A sailor counted how many knots were let off the reel in the time allotted. Multiplying the average rate of a ship's speed by a fixed amount of time gave a rough estimate of the distance traveled. Columbus, however, relied on dead reckoning, meaning he used his experience, intuition, observations, and guesswork to determine his ships' positions.

Life Aboard Ship
Columbus' crew worked in four-hour shifts measured by eight turns of the half-hour ampolletas (sandglasses). Their duties included pumping bilge, cleaning the deck, working the sails and checking the ropes and cargo. When they were off duty, they slept anywhere they could find space. Columbus himself often spent days without sleep. Only the captain had private quarters.

The sailors' lives were hard, and they often died from disease, hunger, and thirst. Religion was the central focus of their lives. Every day began with prayers and hymns and ended with religious services in the evenings. The crew received one hot meal a day cooked over an open fire in a sandbox on deck. Their diet consisted of ship's biscuit, pickled or salted meat, dried peas, cheese, wine, and fresh-caught fish.

Land is Sighted!
The greatest obstacle to Columbus was the crew's beliefs and superstitions. They believed the earth was flat, that the sea was full of monsters, that there were places where the sea was at the boiling point, or there were endless whirlpools. The voyage lasted longer than Columbus expected. After days with no sight of land, the crew grew restless and Columbus had to use all manner of discipline to keep them in line. He offered a hefty reward to the first man to sight land.

On October 12, a sailor aboard the Pinta sighted land in the present-day Bahamas. Columbus set foot on land he believed to be an island in Asia and named it San Salvador. The adventurous explorer did not find the riches he expected, so he sailed in search of China. He visited the island of Cuba and then an island later called Hispaniola (shared today by Haiti and the Dominican Republic).

The Pinta, The August F. Crabtree Collection of Miniature Ships, The Mariners’ Museum Collection

Everywhere he went, he encountered native people he called Indians. (He assumed they were inhabitants of the Indies.) Initially, relations between the newcomers and the Indians were friendly.

On November 21, 1492, Captain Pinzon of the Pinta sailed away to explore on his own. This was unfortunate for Columbus because on Christmas day the Santa Maria ran aground and wrecked off the coast of Hispaniola. Due to limited space on the remaining ship, the Nina, Columbus was forced to leave about 40 men behind on the island. They built a fort named Navidad and on January 4, 1493, Columbus set sail for Spain. He arrived in Palos, Spain, on March 15 to a hero's welcome.

  See a map Columbus's first voyage.

The Santa Maria, August F. Crabtree Collection of Miniature Ships, The Mariners' Museum

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