The Nao Santa María of Chistopher Columbus

The Nao Santa María is one of the most famous ships of mankind. On October 12th of 1492, led by Christopher Columbus, it played the main role on one of the most important historic landmarks: the discovery of America, the encounter between two worlds that changed the future of universal history.

On August 3rd of 1492 it sailed off from the port of Palos de la Frontera (Huelva, Spain) together with the caravels “Pinta” and “Niña”, the so called three caravels from which this nao was the flagship. In all references written by Columbus about the Santa María in his famous diary of the expedition, he refers to it as “nao”, as did other chroniclers of the time:

“Cristopher Columbus loaded, apart from those two, a nao… and on the third, being the nao bigger than the rest, he wanted to travel himself, and hence it became the flagship” 

It was acquired by the Spanish Crown to be part of Juan de la Cosa’s columbine expedition. Although De la Cosa was natural from the Spanish northern region of Cantabria and lived in the southern Puerto de Santa María, the general belief is that the vessel was built somewhere on the coast of Galicia, hence her previous name: La Gallega (The Galician).

On October 12th, 1492, the Nao Santa María, manned by 40 men, arrived to America with the caravels, leading one of the most transcendental encounters of history. While sailing close to the Española Island on Christmas day that year, the helmsman got distracted and the vessel run aground and wrecked. On the location of the shipwreck, known as Bahía de Caracol (Haiti), the first Spanish settlement in America was built from the wreckage; it was the Fuerte Navidad (Christmas Fort).

The references made on the diary and other historic sources of the time allow us to know some characteristics and details of this Nao Santa María: it was a larger vessel with a rounder shape and deeper draft than the caravels, but slower, with a forecastle deck, quarter deck, poop deck and a cabin.

Her four masts would hold the foresail, the top and mainsail formed by a course and two bonnets, the mizzen lateen sail and the spritsail on the bowsprit. She had a whipstaff as steering system and it carried two auxiliary rowing boats on board.

The size is not specified, but according to studies made with historic documents of following expeditions and shipbuilding treatise writers of the time, based on the number of crew members, it could be of approximately 100 barrels. Following the same studies based on these historic sources, treaties, chronicles, iconography and other relevant sources, the main dimensions have been calculated according to the tonnage formulas of the 16th century, as well as the shapes and building details.