Built as a “living history” ship, the El Galeón, a full-sized replica of a 16th century Spanish tall ship that transported goods between the New and Old Worlds, looks out of place among the luxury yachts it’s docked next to in Yacht Haven Grande.
Arriving on Tuesday from Puerto Rico, the 500-ton, 160-foot long wooden vessel will be in St. Thomas and open to visitors for the next week. The 340 Group, LCC. coordinated the ship’s visit as a part of the campaign to commemorate the V.I. centennial transfer this year.
“The Spanish flag is one of the seven that has been flown in the Virgin Islands,” said Austin Callwood, managing partner with the 340 Group, explaining that similar ships could have landed in the Charlotte Amalie Harbor centuries ago.
Callwood said that El Galeón is a prime example of the cross cultural history of the Virgin Islands and the wider Caribbean, since these cargo ships connected people around the world through trade and allowed them to settle the region.
To learn about that history firsthand, a dozen students from the Boys & Girls Club’s Marine Vocational Program took a guided tour of El Galeón on Tuesday. Ranging between ages 12 and 17, the students learn to swim, sail and operate a powerboat through the program. Learning how to tie different knot types from El Galeón crewmembers added to their nautical knowledge.
“This was a nice opportunity for our students to tour a historic vessel and further their marine education,” said Jacqueline Brown, St. Thomas unit director of the Boys & Girls Club of the Virgin Islands.
Visitors can tour five of the ship’s six decks where they can see the hand-carved helm, 12 cannons and noble persons’ quarters. There’s also an exhibit on the Spanish ship that played a large role in the founding of St. Augustine, Fla., the oldest continuously occupied city in the Americas established by Europeans.
Commissioned by the Nao Victoria Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to share the maritime history of Spain, El Galeón launched in 2009 to attend Expo 2010 in Shanghai, China.
El Galeón took a year and a half to build but finding plans to base its design on took twice the amount of time, said crewmember and project manager Fernando Viota. It was difficult to locate one set of complete plans, so the designers had to combine three.
The ship is outfitted with more than six miles of rope and its four masts hold six sails that equate to almost 11,000 square feet of surface area. A mostly volunteer crew from Spain operates those sails.
In their heyday, trading ships like the El Galeón carried much different cargo than the nearby tourist-packed cruise ships do today. According to Viota, the vessels were stocked with goods and settlers bound for the Americas and on their way back they were filled with gold, sugar and spices, the latter of which was often more expensive than precious metals.
“The era these ships were used is the beginning of understanding many scientific principles,” explained Viota. “Sailors learned about the International Date Line, that the earth is round and even introduced potatoes to Europe on these ships,” Viota said.
Pirate enthusiasts will be interested to know that these ships – called Spanish Galleons in English – were often bought and sold by the Spanish and English governments during the 1600s and often wound up commandeered by swashbucklers in the Caribbean if captains didn’t know the waters well enough.
For the last three years, the ship has been sailing around the Americas making trips up the East Coast and wintering primarily in Puerto Rico. Last summer it even cruised the Great Lakes stopping in cities along the way and later this year it will head for its homeport of Barcelona.
Efforts were pulled together in less than three weeks for the ship’s visit. Wallace thanked the following sponsors: Subbase Drydock Inc., V.I. Department of Tourism, V.I. Centennial Transfer Commission and V.I. Centennial Transfer Foundation. Sponsorship and ticket sale proceeds fund the ship’s operating costs.
– El Galeón is open to visitors daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
– Ticket price: $10 adult: $5 students ages 12 to 17 (with valid school ID); $5 children under 12; free for children under 5.
– Advance tickets are available online at the www.vigiftshop.com or at the entrance of the vessel on the waterfront.