Built with the same materials as the Nina, Pinta and the Santa Maria, replicas of the three Spanish caravels will reach their first U.S. port Saturday to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' voyage.
A procession of tall ships, two Spanish navy ships, official welcoming vessels and about 500 pleasure boats will escort the three reproductions into the Port of Miami.
The ships will be open for public tours until they depart March 1 for the remainder of the 20-city American tour commemorating Columbus' journey to the New World.
"It's very significant that Miami was designated as the replicas' first port of call in the United States," said Eloy Vazquez, director of the Miami quincentennial committee.
"Miami is the closest U.S. territory to where Columbus really landed," he said, estimating 250,000 people would watch the ships' arrival. "Now the replicas are discovering Miami."
The wooden replicas, commissioned by Spain, were constructed with the same materials carpenters used in 1492.
The hulls were fashioned from pine and oak taken from the forests of Galicia in northwestern Spain and the Pyrenees, the mountains separating Spain and France.
The hand-forged nails were modeled after some recovered from a 16th century shipwreck. The sails are made of linen, the closest natural fiber to hemp canvas. Hemp was used to caulk the ships' bottoms and decks.
"They are much sturdier than we originally thought. They are really constructed to withstand abuse anticipated out there on the ocean," said quincentennial committee member Peter Caspari.
The replicas offer more comfort for the 52 Spanish crew members than the originals. The sleeping quarters are taller with more headroom, and crew members sleep on bunks and eat refrigerated food.
The ships carry modern navigational instruments and have diesel engines.
The original ships were built for three purposes, Caspari said. The Nina, being the smallest, was used to explore shallow waters, the Pinta was a fighting ship, and the Santa Maria stored livestock in its hold.
"Nobody would sleep downstairs because of the smell. The crew would stay on top. As they needed food, they would slaughter an animal," he said.
The replicas were christened in 1990 and embarked on a 10-month tour of Europe, visiting ports in Spain, France, Italy and Portugal.
They also have visited Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and the Bahamian island of San Salvador, possibly Columbus' original landing site.
In Santo Domingo, Santa Maria crewman Antonio Toledo, 24, said the Atlantic passage was sometimes harrowing. Rough seas once rolled the ship more than 45 degrees.
"After the first time, it all seemed natural. There was no problem," Toledo said.
Tens of thousands of South Floridians, including schoolchildren from Broward, Dade and Palm Beach counties, are expected to tour the ships during their two-week stay.
Not everyone is happy with the attention the ships are generating. American Indian groups complain Columbus' arrival in the Americas began a process that led to the destruction of much of Indian civilization.
"It's a celebration of ignorance and arrogance," said Suzan Shown Harjo, national coordinator of the 1992 Alliance, a coalition of Indian groups. "This wasn't a lost-and-found hemisphere. This was an active civilization until we were inflicted .
. by barbarism."