Published May 28. 2014 1:20PM Updated May 29. 2014 12:17AM
Norwich — The Pinta and the Niña quietly plowed the Thames River and arrived at Norwich Harbor late Wednesday morning with a small audience watching from the docks and from nearby Howard T. Brown Memorial Park.
The hand-built replicas of 15th century ships sailed by Christopher Columbus to the New World will be docked at the Marina at American Wharf until their departure early Wednesday morning. Their visit coincides with Saturday’s Riverfest event, sponsored by the Greater Norwich Area Chamber of Commerce, from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the Howard T. Brown Memorial Park.
“Would you cross the Atlantic in that?” Betty Foster of Mystic asked her 19-year-old granddaughter, Angie Paul, as they stood on the dock and watched the ships slowly make their way.
“And with 50 people crammed below,” Paul responded.
Not quite, Pinta Capt. Stephen Sanger said. On that historic first voyage, the Pinta had a crew of 26, while the Niña carried 24. Today, the two ships have combined crews of 14 men and women.
Beverly L. Jones of Norwich greeted the crews as they docked Wednesday. Jones has always been fascinated by nautical knots, and she examined the giant rope knots that form hull bumpers and the criss-cross knots that secured the ships to the docks.
“The knots, that’s what holds these ships together,” she said. “My grandfather taught me that.”
Sanger said the two replica ships, owned by the Columbus Foundation, do have modern equipment and comforts hidden below deck and out of sight to visitors. On deck, visitors can “step back in time” and learn how sailors crossed the ocean in what was then state-of-the-art sailing technology.
The replicas visit festivals and dock at major cities for 11 months out of the year. This spring, the ships made their way from the Caribbean to Florida to St. Michael, Md, and to Bridgeport before spending Tuesday night docked in New London and coming up the Thames River to Norwich.
The Niña was built by hand and completed in 1991 without the use of power tools. It is considered to be the most historically correct Columbus replica ever built. The Pinta was built from 2002 to 2005 in Brazil and is a larger version of the archetypal caravel-style ship sailed by Columbus.
People often ask about the Santa Maria. According to the foundation’s website, the Santa Maria was considerably larger than the caravels Niña and Pinta. The Santa Maria would require 14 feet of water depth, twice the depth needed by the two other ships.
“A Santa Maria replica would not be able to travel to many places where The ‘Niña’ and ‘Pinta’ visit,” the website says.
Coincidentally, the Niña and the Pinta arrived in Norwich as ocean explorer Barry Clifford made his case in Haiti that the 15th century wreck he discovered off the Haitian coast is the remains of the Santa Maria.
Clifford — who discovered the 1717 wreck of the pirate ship Whydah off Cape Cod in 1984 — announced May 14 that he had discovered what he believes is the Santa Maria wreck. On Wednesday, he gave a presentation to the Haitian prime minister and other government ministers in Port au Prince, according to a story in The Miami Herald. Clifford hopes the Haitian government will help to secure the site from looters, the Herald said.