Five hundred years ago, Spaniards arrived in their sailing ships and stepped ashore in Florida. Now they're back. But this time, the roles are reversed: They're inviting Floridians to step aboard their galleon, and step back in time.
As part of the Viva Florida 500 celebration marking the five-century history of the Sunshine State, a full-sized replica of the ships that served as the workhorses of the Spanish Empire at the time of Ponce de Leon sailed into Miami on Monday to kick off a two-month visit at four ports along the Florida coast.
The ship is an exact model of the famously imposing square-sailed icon of the Spanish treasure fleet and the warship of the Armada. Named simply El Galeón, it stretches 165 feet from its prow to the signature square stern, and just inches shy of 33 feet at the widest point of its beam.
"It was the ship of exploration, discovery, settlement and commerce from the beginning of the 16th Century to the end of the 18th," said Guadalupe Fernandez, historian for the Fundación Nao Victoria, the nonprofit organization that owns the galleon.
Think Pirates of the Caribbean. With a few modern touches.
Just like the ancestors it's modeled after, the ship travels by wind power – the original "green" oceangoing means of travel long before people worried about preserving the environment. It has three masts and seven of the distinctive sails that carried the crews of yore on their voyages of exploration and adventure. It also has a satellite phone, mattresses instead of hammocks or hard floors, and flushable toilets. And, there's a backup diesel engine. Just in case.
Carrying a crew of 26, El Galeón crossed the Atlantic on a route similar to the ones its predecessors covered. It set out from the Canary Islands off the coast of the Iberian Peninsula to ride the waves on a 17-day journey to Santo Domingo, then to Puerto Rico. After almost a month there, they set sail for the five-day passage to Miami.
Even though it has modern navigation equipment, said Eduardo Almagro Blanco, the Fundación Nao's general manager, the crew has tried to remain faithful in its reenactment of a 16th Century trip, steering by the stars and dead reckoning most of the way.
Total distance traveled: 5,066 miles.
Beginning with a two-week stay in Miami, the current visit's itinerary includes stops at Cape Canaveral, Fort Lauderdale and, finally, the place of the galleons' first landing in Florida, St. Augustine.
With stays as long as 14 days at each of its stops, the ship offers an invitation to the public to tour its six decks, captain's cabin and officer's quarters. Multilingual crewmembers will be on hand to answer questions about the ship and their journey. Visitors also get to see something the sailors of old could never have imagined: an interactive computer display, and a video exhibit about the galleons and their role in opening the New World to European exploration and settlement.
Almagro said the ship of the conquistadors was the equivalent of early NASA spacecraft, designed to expand mankind's knowledge and reach.
"At the beginnings of the Space Age," he said, "astronauts boarded ships that now would be considered antiquated and headed into the unknown. The Spaniards and Portuguese who were the explorers of the time headed off onto the ocean thinking the Earth was flat, not knowing where it would end, and in that way began discovering."
No one knows for certain what kind of ship Ponce de Leon used. In his explorations of the New World, Fernandez said, he kept fairly shabby records. While the galleon was the vessel of choice for most of the explorers, it's impossible to say for certain that Ponce de Leon chose one instead of a caravel or a carrack.
"But," she said, "we know absolutely that in 1565, when St. Augustine was established, Pedro Menendez de Aviles' ship was the 'San Pelayo,' a 500-ton galleon absolutely similar to the one that is there now."
Only this time, it's Floridians who get to be the explorers.