Sunday, July 13, 2014

It's official: Corpus Christi will junk replica Columbus ships

Photo by Joe O'Connell
The Columbus ships were once a source of pride for Corpus Christi, Texas. But now two of the three will go to the junk heap.

Read my story in Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine for the full history of the problem/lost tourism opportunity.

Here's the gist of it:

"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 NiƱa, 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.

Read the rest.