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Dry-Docked Dreams

Corpus Christi’s Columbus ship replicas may face death knell.

By Joe O’Connell

As a child, Louie Cortinas researched Christopher Columbus’ journey from Spain to the New World and constructed a model of the Pinta, one of the adventurer’s three famous ships. He dreamed of sailing on those ships, as children often do.

In 1992, when Cortinas was 23, full-size replicas of the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria arrived in Texas as part of a U.S. tour honoring the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage. He yearned to be a sailor on one of the ships, but his volunteer application was rejected. Disap­pointed but still fascinated, the young man could only watch as los tres barcos (the three boats) sailed up to Corpus Christi. “I went on a tour, and they were brand-spanking new,” Cortinas recalls.

One day last winter, Cortinas, now a professional diver, took another guided tour of the Pinta, resting beside the Santa Maria on a concrete slab behind the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History.

“All of this was varnished and shiny,” he says. “It’s changed so much. It’s heartbreaking to see.”

Tourists probably won’t be able to view the two replicas for long. No exact date has been set, but the two ships are expected to be removed from the museum, their remains carted away as junk.

And what about the Niña? She still bobs in Corpus Christi Bay, the lone survivor of a dream gone sour.

Nina

The Niña, at dock in Corpus Christi, is being restored.

Over at the museum, the Pinta’s paint is chipped, but the deck looks solid. The Santa Maria’s hull has taken on a greenish hue, with rot so severe that tourists are no longer allowed on board.

The vestiges of decay tell a story with only the bleakest hope for any kind of happy ending.

“There’s not a future for them,” says Wes Pierson, Corpus Christi assistant city manager. “We’re talking about significant dollars to do anything for those ships. It would cost more to restore the Santa Maria than to buy a new one.”

Pierson thinks the ships are irreparable, citing the original Spanish shipbuilder, who went to Corpus Christi to assess the ships.

“He said they’re in really bad shape,” Pierson recalls. “I think his word was ‘deplorable.’”

It’s an unlikely fate for once-international icons of American and Spanish history. The ships were built in Spain using materials and methods matching those of the 15th century. While there are unknown details about the appearance of the original ships, the replicas were designed with meticulous attention to research. For example, hand-forged nails replicated those found in shipwreck remains.

A few modern adaptations were made. Additional headroom was provided for today’s taller sailors. The sails were made of linen, though the originals were hemp. Modern engines were added for emergency use.

The ships, which are surprisingly small, toured Spain, France, Italy and Portugal before crossing the Atlan­tic for a tour of the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas and finally a string of coastal U.S. cities. The first stop was Miami, where a thousand private boats guided the replicas while a crowd of 5,000 cheered from the shore.

The Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria weren’t originally scheduled to go to Corpus Christi, but a Quincentenary Commission was formed to lure the ships to Texas. Nelida Ortiz was a member of that group and recalls watching the ships sail in to town.

“It was a hot, gorgeous, sunny day,” she says. “People were standing in line to get on the ships for more than two hours at a time. I’ve been here for 30 years and I haven’t seen a turnout for anything like that.”

Corpus Christi crowds were estimated at more than 100,000 over 10 days. The celebration went on for a month, and the excitement led to the formation of the Columbus Fleet Association, which put together a proposal for a 50-year lease of the three ships from the Spanish government. Local beer distributor/developer Dusty Durrill gave the group $1.1 million for the effort, and local schoolchildren wrote pleading letters to Spain. Corpus Christi won.

The ships arrived at their new home in 1993 but were quickly moved to a cargo dock for fear of being battered by Trop­ical Storm Arlene. Their luck would not hold as the next year, the Pinta and Santa Maria were bludgeoned by a barge. The accident resulted in a $1.7 million settlement and the public bond-funded construction of a $2.9 million slab outside the museum. The two ships have languished there ever since.

Ships

The Pinta and Santa Maria, housed at a Corpus Christi museum, may be beyond repair.

Unfortunately, wooden ships stored out of water deteriorate more quickly. Some argued that the ships should be kept in water. The damage to the Pinta and Santa Maria was above the waterline, so they could conceivably have been repaired in the water, raising questions about money spent on the slab.

Tough questions began to circulate in Corpus Christi. Should someone have worked harder to repair/maintain the ships? Who was responsible?

A 2011 Corpus Christi Caller-Times article about a fundraising event elicited comments including “The only thing needed to fix the three ships is a match to burn them to the ground” and, in support, “Quit whining and get to work.”

A group of diverse individuals chose to do the latter. The group formed as the Columbus Sailing Association, with John Torrey, a former teacher and owner of a garbage equipment company, as president. The group agreed to fully restore the Niña and has been working to do so. Members opened it for tours one weekend a month. They got the city to agree to sell metal ballast from the Santa Maria to fund Niña restoration. Boy Scouts have come to their aid, helping apply coats of marine varnish.

“They do a better job than a bunch of old men with bad knees,” Torrey says.

He says the Niña’s restoration is almost complete but acknowledges it might be just a “pipe dream” for the Niña (and conceivably the Pinta) to regularly sail again. It’s a dream Torrey and the others are not willing to give up on yet.

“The wind catches the sails and pulls the deck out from under you,” Torrey says of sailing on the Niña. “It’s like you’re gliding on a magic carpet. You’re in a time machine back 500 years and Christopher Columbus is with you.”

The Italian explorer would likely approve of the group’s stubbornness of spirit. Torrey likens Columbus to Donald Trump, a salesman with personality and flash.

“He thought he was always right,” Torrey says. Indeed, Columbus’ goal was to find a direct trade route to China by sailing west. He failed to talk Portugal’s King John II into financing the voyage, so he turned to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain. They fell for Columbus’ charm, though apparently remained unconvinced of his prospects of success. Hedging their bets against competing nations, they agreed to fund the voyage and gave him a cut of the final take. Columbus’ calculations proved wrong, but his unexpected “discovery” of a new world made sure that didn’t matter.

At the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History, wooden figures of Columbus and the Spanish king and queen have holes for faces in tourist photos, but a tour guide bypasses them on the way to the Pinta. Inside the museum, a side hallway is devoted to Columbus, including a video, Seeds of Change.

Change is afoot at the museum, which since 2012 has been managed by a public/private partnership involving the Durrill family. Plans call for the slab where the ships reside to become a rental space for events, including weddings.

“The business model for museums needs to change since there are fewer and fewer resources,” Pierson says. “Instead of dying by a thousand cuts, we decided to see if we could find a viable model that could renew its vitality.”

In addition to Dusty Durrill’s donation to the Columbus Fleet Association, the Durrill family plays a large role in the Corpus Christi tourism and arts scenes, funding expansion to the Art Center of Corpus Christi and construction of scenic overlooks (called miradors) along Ocean Drive, including one that houses a statue of the late Tejano singer Selena.

The family that helped bring the Columbus ships to Corpus Christi may play a role in their final fate, though it’s ultimately up to the city. The conclusion looks particularly foregone for the Santa Maria replica, which follows the path of its namesake. Early on Christmas Day 1492, the Santa Maria ran aground off Haiti. Its planks were stripped and used to make La Navidad, the first Spanish settlement in the New World.

For more information about the ships, visit www.ccbarcos.com.

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