The Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria

Having gotten permission and funds from Ferdinand and Isabella Columbus set about outfitting a little fleet for a trip across the "Ocean Sea" to find a faster route to China and India. He got three ships, now remembered as the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.

A replica of the Nina

The Santa Maria was the largest of the ships (and also the slowest). It was Columbus's flagship on the first voyage. It was built in Pontevedra, Galicia. Because of this the Santa Maria was sometimes referred to as "La Gallega", meaning "the Galician". The ship was classified as a carrack, a three or four masted ocean going sailing ship. The Santa Maria had four masts. The fore and mainmasts both carried a square sail, while the mizzen (or aft) mast had a triangular sail. She reportedly sailed well across the Atlantic, but she ran aground near Haiti and broke apart. Her hewn timbers were then used to build a fort known as La Navidad, because the wreck occurred on Christmas Day. The ship was not built especially for this journey, but had been built long before and was rented from its master and owner Juan de la Cosa. As Columbus was the Admiral of the Fleet, Juan was the Captain of the Santa Maria. He would also accompany Columbus on his second and third voyages.

"Pinta", meaning "Painted One", is thought to be a nickname for the second vessel. Her given name is no longer certain. The Pinta was a caravel. This was a smaller two or three masted ship of about 20 meters in length (about 65 feet) and about 7 meters wide (22 feet). It could be crewed by about 25 sailors. It was captained on the first trip by Martín Alonso Pinzón. He was also part owner of both the Niña and the Pinta. Columbus had some difficulty with him on the first voyage. They became separated more than once largely at the seeming instigation of Pinzon.

"Niña" was also a nickname. The third ship was originally named the Santa Clara. The name may have come from the original owner whose name was Juan Nino.1 It was lateen rigged (or Latin rigged), which was a mast with a diagonal yard mounted with a triangular sail. It was captained by Vicente Yáńez Pinzón the brother of the captain of the Pinta. The ship carried a crew of about 25 and was classed a caravel (thought to be about 45 feet long). After the Santa Maria ran aground, Columbus used the Niña as his flagship.

All told, there were about 120 crewmen for the combined fleet. They lived on hard biscuit, salted meat, and fish. They drank beer and water. Of course, they could not drink sea-water because of the high salt content. In that day they had not yet developed methods for distilling the sea-water to remove the salt. Living conditions were difficult. Sleeping was done on the hard deck, often exposed to the weather. Because of the danger of a wooden ship burning to the water-line, fires had to be strictly controlled. The cooking was done by the ships cook in the forward part of the ship. The captain normally had a small cabin in the aft part of the ship.

The three ships set out from Palos, Spain on 3 August 1492.

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  1. Ref to:
  2. Thanks to Kelly Jordal for photo of Niña replica.

The Ancient Greeks had a warship called the trireme that had three banks of rowers.

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