HARPSWELL — On a recent afternoon, bright sun bathed anxious crowds pouring down a South Harpswell pier to climb aboard two squat black vessels berthed in the green waters of Pott’s Harbor.
The two ships, exact replicas of the Nina and Pinta – two of the three ships Christopher Columbus used to cross the Atlantic more than 500 years ago – have returned to the Gulf of Maine.
The vessels, owned and operated by the non-profit Columbus Foundation, will be cruising along the coast, setting anchor in different Maine ports through July 10, before heading south.
Curious visitors are taking the opportunity to tour the ships and imagine what it would have been like to take the perilous journey to the New World.
“I think we all have a vision of them being two to three times bigger,” said Nathan Desjardins, of Freeport, as he was leaving the Nina with his wife Meghan and two small children.
The two caravel ships are indeed smaller than one might imagine. The Nina is only 65 feet long, and the Pinta only a bit longer, at 85 feet.
Construction of the older Nina started in 1988 at a traditional shipbuilding yard in Valencia, Brazil, based on a design by two maritime historians, John Sarsfield and Jonathan Nance.
The master shipwrights in Valencia used only hand tools and timber from the local forest to build the Nina. Sixteen years later, the same builders finished construction of the Pinta, which joined its sister ship to tour the western hemisphere.
There are no plans to build a replica of Columbus’ largest vessel, the Santa Maria, in part because it never returned to Europe, but also because its size prevents it from moving through shallower waters.
In favorable conditions, the vessels are powered by their sails, but both utilize outboard motors as back-ups.
The ships, stained black from the pine tar used as a water-resistant seal, tour 11 months of the year, plying the waters along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, Gulf of Mexico, and major inland waterways like the Hudson and Mississippi rivers.
Along the way, veteran crew members are replaced by new faces.
“They gave me a week to pack my bags and quit my job,” Nina crew member Andrea Bursott said, recalling the offer she received to become part of the crew.
Brusott, a 26-year-old aspiring filmmaker, joined up in Hudson, Wis., and only expected to stay on for a month. Now, almost a year later, she can’t say when she’ll disembark for good. She said she could even imagine signing up for a more challenging voyage.
“If Columbus asked me to be on his crew, I think I would do it,” Bursott said.
Michael Sprague, a crew member on the Pinta, has also developed an attachment to his vessel.
Resting comfortably on the ship’s railing, he explained how, without any sailing experience, he was handling the ship’s tiller a week after he joined the crew about a year ago.
“That’s when I fell in love,” Sprague said.
Even with cramped below-deck sleeping quarters and an almost complete absence of personal space, life on the historic craft appeals to Sprague. He took a month off from the ship earlier this spring, but quickly found his way back and doesn’t have plans to leave again anytime soon.
“I’m not going to fight it anymore,” he said, with a wide grin.
Visitors study a historic replica of the Pinta last week in Harpswell. The ship and its sister, the Nina, are in Camden now and headed to South Portland next week.
A deckhand on the Nina explains the history of the ship to a group of visitors in Harpswell last week.
The Nina and Pinta will be docked at the Camden Public Landing until June 30, and are scheduled to be at South Port Marine, 14 Ocean St., South Portland, from July 3-10.