Chance for unique experience draws youngsters, adults to Columbus ships


Robby Burch stood on deck of the Nina at the Inner Harbor yesterday, wrapped in a yellow slicker, pelted by rain, fielding questions from a stream of curious visitors.

The questions went like this: How long did it take the replica of Christopher Columbus' famous ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean? (Thirty days.) Do people live below-deck? (Yes.) How many crew members are there? (Fourteen.) How about on the larger Santa Maria? (Twenty-nine.) Why is the deck curved? (So water runs off.)

Mr. Burch, 24, had volunteered as a guide for Operation Sail, a committee that is host to the Baltimore stop of a tour commemorating the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage to the New World. Replicas of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria sailed from Spain last October, retracing the original trip with stops in the Canary Islands, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic before going on to visit various U.S. ports beginning with Miami.

"This is a one-shot deal for the kids," said Sue Hopkins, a Harford County music teacher giving her 6-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter a hands-on history lesson. "I got the globe out this morning and explained the whole story of falling off the edge of the ocean and why we know the Earth isn't flat. They'll never see anything like this their entire lives."

Operation Sail officials estimated that more than 1,000 visitors toured the ships on their first full day docked at Harrison's Pier 5. The ships will stay in Baltimore through June 7 as part of a U.S. tour of 21 cities.

Visitors examined oak hulls and planking, which the Spanish Institute of Naval History and Culture built in the tradition of 15th century carpenters.

Meanwhile, Spanish crew members, who live in off-limits areas below deck, sought refuge from the rain under an enclosure at one end of the deck on both the Nina and the Pinta, strumming guitars or listening to recorded Latin music.

"It looks like more fun in there," commented one rain-soaked tourist, who heard the music and peeked from under her umbrella at much drier crew members.

But the rain didn't bother Ellen Granum and Gwen Emmett, teachers at the National Presbyterian School in Washington, D.C. They toured the Pinta with four kindergarten students, who'd won the free trip to Baltimore as part of a school fund-raiser.

"When they're in first grade, there will be a lot of talk about the [Columbus voyage] anniversary, and they'll be able to relate to having seen the boats," said Ms. Granum, adding that the concept of "replica" was still out of the youngsters' grasp.

"They think it's the original boat," she said.

Children weren't the only ones getting an education, though.

"You hear about this your whole life, and you don't realize how small these boats were until you're on them," said Barbara Mills of New York, in town for the weekend visiting her daughter.

The Spanish government spent $14 million researching and building the vessels, which members of Spain's royal family christened and launched in the fall of 1989.

In promoting the tour, Operation Sail has tried to steer clear of glorifying the discovery of the New World, which has offended American Indians and other groups, said Gregory Barnhill, president of the committee that handles the city's visiting ships.

Instead, the committee has focused on the educational importance of the Spain '92 Foundation tour, distributing corresponding study guides in city schools and promoting the display as a cultural exchange between Spain and the United States, he said.

Although the tour has brought demonstrations in other cities, Mr. Barnhill said, he had seen no signs of protest in Baltimore.

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