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Columbus high and dry Ships to call full of history, short of cash


Three replicas of the ships Christopher Columbus first sailed to the New World are to arrive in Baltimore today, two weeks later than originally planned and running short of the money they need to complete the tour mapped out for them four years ago.

The Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria sailed from Spain in October 1991 and have been visiting cities in the Caribbean and southern United States since their arrival in the New World. But the costs of getting the tiny caravels to the West Coast has officials of the sponsoring organization scrambling for funds.

"It's going to cost us $850,000, and we have to come up with that out of the clear, blue sky," fretted Miguel Ferrer, tour director for the Spain '92 Foundation, who spoke by telephone yesterday from Washington.

The vessels are so authentic that they have no engines, other than small hydraulic pumps designed like the motors of jet skis that they use to get in and out of harbors.

But while the square sails with which Columbus outfitted his ships were fine for the trade winds that carried them across the Atlantic, they don't do so well in shifting coastal breezes.

When the wind is against them, the 63 sailors lash the ships together and throw a line to an escort vessel provided by the Spanish Navy to tow them until they can sail again. "It's the only way we can possibly make the tour," Mr. Ferrer said. In fact, said Mary Sue McCarthy, a spokeswoman for Baltimore Operation Sail, their slowness is one reason their Inner Harbor arrival was delayed.

"They told us they underestimated the sailing time they would need, and they added a city, Fort Lauderdale, because they had rTC gotten such a good response in Florida," she said.

If all goes well, the ships will arrive in the Inner Harbor at noon.

The only way to get the ships to San Francisco in time for a scheduled October arrival is to float them from Boston, their last East Coast stop, through the Panama Canal and up the West Coast on a semi-submersible vessel they could only find in the Netherlands.

The vessel, which is like a floating dry dock, lowers its hull to allow the caravels and sea water to float onto cradles in a large, open hold. When the vessels are secured, the semi-submersible floats itself again and drains the water. The caravels remain inside, protected from the elements and hurrying to their next port.

But it is a costly operation.

"They wanted $2 1/2 million originally, but we negotiated it down to $850,000," Mr. Ferrer said.

The foundation, which was set up with $1.5 million from the Spanish government, is "on its own" to raise money for the passage and is looking for corporate help in the United States, Mr. Ferrer said.

But celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the New World "has become a myth as far as corporate America is concerned," he said.

U.S. corporate donations dried up last year after the Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission in Washington, established by Congress to plan the celebration in this country, became mired in allegations of financial mismanagement and bribery.

Companies backed off even further last fall when American Indian groups began protesting the anniversary hoopla, saying that the explorer's arrival marked the beginning of the rape and pillage of their ancestors.

The ships meet some of their costs by charging admission in their ports of call. Mr. Ferrer estimated that some 2.8 million people visited the vessels during their stops in Florida and along the Gulf Coast.

But that money is only a fraction of Spain '92's budget. Mostly, admission fees cover local expenses, which range from $25,000 to $75,000 in a city, Mr. Ferrer said.

The Spanish government has "been very supportive," he said, but tour costs could exceed $7 million.

"We're determined to push on through to August," when they are scheduled to leave Boston for the West Coast, Mr. Ferrer said. "The only thing we've been short of is the ability to raise the additional $850,000."

The foundation also faces a problem getting the ships through the canal on a ship flying a Dutch flag. U.S. maritime law forbids cargo to be transported from one U.S. port to another in anything other than a U.S.-registered vessel.

There are exceptions, including one that allows merchandise to be shipped in a foreign vessel if no U.S.-registered vessels can perform the service. The only U.S. semi-submersible is owned by the Navy.

Mr. Ferrer said Spain '92 has applied for an exception and expects to receive it. "It's only a technicality," he said.

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