Riding out the storm; Bad luck, or mismanagement, dogs Columbus replica fleet

by John Tedesco
Metro / South Texas

All content (c) San Antonio Express-News

CORPUS CHRISTI — This is the tale of a fateful trip, three tiny ships, and how they were nearly lost.

Or as some people prefer to tell it, how a community ruined a cultural treasure and racked up millions of dollars of debt.

However the story goes, the conclusion holds less promise than the beginning for the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, a trio of wooden replicas that were welcomed by cheering crowds when they sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in 1992.

Built to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World, the ships cost the Spanish government millions of dollars.

The nails were hand-forged, as they were in the 15th century. Hemp was used to caulk the hull and decks.

The wood came from forests that carpenters harvested to construct the originals.

Cities on the tour were smitten by “Las Carabelas” and vied to keep the symbolic vessels permanently, along with the promise of tourists. Corpus Christi won the bidding war in May 1993.

Today, the Niña floats in the city marina and is closed to the public.

Its sister ships, damaged from an errant barge, are displayed in dry dock at the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History.

None has been maintained for more than a year; the nonprofit group charged with managing the vessels is penniless.

“It would be more dignified if we sank them,” said Mirta Blay, a board member of the Columbus Fleet Association who is frustrated with past management of the ships. “At least they would die at sea.”

Last week, the city stepped in as a reluctant caretaker, obtaining insurance for all three vessels and pledging to maintain them. The city’s museum opened the Pinta and the Santa Maria to visitors, and funds from higher admissions prices have been earmarked for maintenance.

But the future still is uncertain. It would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to return the Pinta and Santa Maria to the ocean.

Their poor condition has sparked an international tiff with Spain, which expressed its displeasure over the vessels’ fate at nearly every turn.

And the ships are an unwelcome drain on city coffers. Every year, the Convention and Visitors Bureau spends $280,000 in taxpayer funds to pay off a $3 million concrete plaza that was supposed to be a temporary display for the Pinta and Santa Maria.

What was to be the pride of Corpus Christi instead became a blemish on the city’s history, a source of civic embarrassment that still mystifies many. How did the best-laid plans of a well-meaning community go so terribly awry?

High hopes

The tiny fleet set out on its maiden voyage on Oct. 13, 1991, from the port of Huelva, where Columbus began his historic journey in search of India five centuries ago. They met an enthusiastic response wherever they went during a tour of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas and the United States.

The biggest turnout during the tour was in Corpus Christi, where the ships visited for 10 days in March 1992. In a city where most of the population is Hispanic, nearly 110,000 people turned out to gawk at the Spanish vessels and tour the decks. Some people cried at the sight of them.

The effect whetted the appetite of local civic leaders and an expanding tourism industry. Among those convinced that Corpus Christi should try to bring the ships back permanently was a local philanthropist named Dusty Durrill, who saw an opportunity to tell the story of Spain’s role in shaping the New World and Hispanic culture.

“The things that make Texas – the ranches, the cattle, the horses – they all came from Spain,” Durrill said. “The historical significance of this was not being told in the Americas.”

Thousands of schoolchildren wrote letters asking Spain to bring back the fleet. In January 1993, then-Mayor Mary Rhodes promised Spain to portray the ships as a prominent tourist attraction. She projected that between 350,000 and 500,000 people would visit the exhibit, netting up to $1 million in annual revenue.

A few months later, Spain signed a 50-year lease agreement with the Columbus Fleet Association, a nonprofit group in Corpus Christi made up of community leaders who volunteered to oversee the ships.

The association borrowed money from Durrill’s charitable foundation to relocate the ships from New York to Corpus Christi. Loans to cover part of a $1.6 million lease agreement with Spain were guaranteed by Durrill and the J.E. Smothers Memorial Foundation, which is based in San Antonio.

The terms of the lease immediately sunk the association into debt, but it seemed a safe bet at the time, given the popularity of the ships during their last stay.

Barge 103

The first crack in the city’s vision appeared after the ships arrived in June 1993. Waves whipped up by a storm convinced the association that a dock site on the bay was too dangerous for the ships.

The association relocated the fleet to a presumably safer – and more obscure – location at a cargo dock in the Port of Corpus Christi. The new site took weeks to prepare and proved to be a costly delay during the height of tourism season.

No one, including the tugboat pilots towing Barge 103 on April 12, 1994, saw the accident coming.

Bound for a refinery located on the ship channel, two tugboats lost control of a 400-foot barge that rammed the Pinta, which in turn hit the Santa Maria.

The barge company blamed the mishap on a sudden shift in the wind, which pushed the barge into the moored ships.

The Pinta’s hull, internal structure and mast were damaged, while the Santa Maria had internal damage and a hole above its main deck.

The ships were still afloat and the Niña was undamaged. But repairs would be costly.

Choppy waters

On Dec. 20, 1994, City Council members voted to raise bonds to fund a museum expansion and a new, concrete display for the Pinta and Santa Maria. The theory: Tourists could visit the damaged vessels while they were being repaired in dry dock. The debt-burdened fleet association was supposed to pay off the bonds.

What happened during the next several years – how a $1.7 million insurance settlement was spent and why the ships still need thousands of dollars in repairs – has perplexed auditors, city officials and some of the association’s own board members.

Part of the puzzle was pieced together by the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, which reported last year that nearly $400,000 in insurance money intended for repairs was spent paying off the concrete plaza and a loan that was guaranteed by Durrill.

Association executives took a trip to Spain and entertained a Spanish consultant in Corpus Christi. A former shipwright, Phillip Du Pre, compared the insurance fund to a “bottomless cookie jar” that was squandered, the newspaper reported.

Meanwhile, the construction techniques of the 15th century, which had made the ships so appealing, were clashing with safety regulations of the 20th century.

“These vessels have not been built to any known standard that would permit commercial use in the 1990s,” a Coast Guard inspector wrote of the Columbus ships in a 1997 report.

Some repairs to bring the vessels into compliance were slipshod. During a 1998 Coast Guard inspection of the Niña, Chief Warrant Officer Don Perez found sections of spongy, rotten wood that had been covered with sealing compound and painted over, according to his report.

Perhaps the most crushing news came from the Spanish shipwrights who arrived in 1998 to repair the languishing fleet. The $3 million concrete plaza, they told the association, hadn’t been required. The damage to the Pinta and Santa Maria could have been fixed in the water.

Conspiracy theories

That revelation conflicted with the assessments of surveyors who recommended in 1994 that repairs be made in dry dock. But it fueled speculation that the Pinta and Santa Maria were sacrificed to boost attendance at the museum.

“I can’t to this date figure out any reason or justification” for the plaza, said Lane Hollister, a former assistant navigator aboard the Niña when it operated as a sailing school vessel.

Roberta Ripke, a board member of the association, said: “You have to keep in mind, the city owns the museum. As long as the ships stay in the plaza, the museum makes money, which means the city makes money.”

Was it bad luck or personal agendas that sunk the potential of the Columbus ships? Rick Stryker, the museum director, said the decision to build the plaza “has been a festering ground for conspiracy theories.”

“I’m always viewed with suspicion by these folks,” Stryker said. “They don’t see the city as a white knight in shining armor, swooping down to save the ships.”

Durrill, a continual thorn in the side of Spain, has taken blame for the sagging fortunes of the fleet. The plaza might have been a waste, he acknowledges, but he points out that Spain approved nearly every decision that was made regarding the ships.

“It’s an unfortunate thing,” he said of the ailing fleet. “But there weren’t any devils in the belfry.”

In the latest chapter of the Columbus ship saga, Durrill made the re-opening of the Pinta and the Santa Maria possible. He agreed to release liens he placed on the ships in exchange for Spain’s permission to open them to the public. Two still are stuck on land, but they finally are generating money.

“It’s not perfect,” Durrill says of the current arrangement, “but it’s better than it was.”

jtedesco @ express-news.net