Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Step Aboard A Spanish Galleon And Touch History--El Galeon's Visit To Charleston

I walked passed Liberty Square to the waterfront where spotting it was unmistakable. Contrasted with the clear blue skies and glistening waters, the 170-foot dark silhouette overshadowed the bay's surroundings from its resting place at the end of the long pier adjacent to the Charleston Maritime Center. Laced with an intricate configuration of rigging, sails furled tightly around the cross beams, its trio of tall masts rose 125 feet into the sky at the tallest point.

From a distance, the irresistible allure of the massive wooden monarch from the Age of Sail aroused one's curiosity. Up close, it inspired one's imagination. Representative of a greatly romanticized era of exploration and pirates, the El Galeon is a replica of the 16th century Spanish galleon. Step aboard onto its main deck and you are transported back to a time when new worlds were being discovered and the tall tales of the seamen who manned these wind-driven vessels were recorded in the ship's log.

Circumnavigating earth's vast oceans to the far side of the world in the 1600's was a risky venture on a wind and a sail, although more likely on a wind and a prayer. Storms, leaks, shipwrecks, disease, starvation, and pirate attacks constantly put the life of the crew in jeopardy. The daunting task demanded of its recruitments substance, skill, savoir-faire and a stout ship. The galleon was one of those ships.

Ship's wheel and Captain's quarters
The galleon was a new type of sailing ship built in early 16th century. It differed from the older types primarily by being longer, lower and narrower, with a square tuck stern instead of a round tuck, and by having a head projecting forward from the bow below the level of the forecastle (The bow being the forward part of the hull of a ship and the forecastle refers to the upper deck of a sailing ship forward of the foremast with the sailors living quarters).

Main mast
Spanish galleons were designed primarily as transports for treasure and merchandise, but also used in military applications--average capacity was 500 tons. They showed great endurance in battles and in great storms. They were stronger, faster, more maneuverable, more heavily armed, and also cheaper to build than the Spanish carrack. They were so versatile that a single vessel may have been refitted for wartime and peacetime roles several times during its lifespan.

Gun deck
The captains of these ships kept rigid discipline and had full powers to punish all offenses. Sanctions ranged from loss of wages to whippings and sometimes executions. Playing music, chatting, and reading was the only entertainment allowed on board. Gambling, playing cards, and dart throwing were completely forbidden. Other offenses included swearing, cursing, undressing, and extramarital sex.

As I strolled the five of the six decks of the El Galeon (the deck with the crew’s quarters was not open to the tour), crew members were available to answer any and all of the questions I desired to ask. Visual aids, interactives, and videos were located throughout the gun deck sharing information about 16th century European sailing techniques and technology, as well as important Florida history exhibits, and the 500 year story since the arrival of Juan Ponce de León on the eastern shore of Florida.

Sleeping quarters
Crews quarters

Since the El Galeon’s completion in 2009, the ship has sailed the world. St. Augustine has since been named its home American port for the foreseeable future. It was in Charleston for the weekend and left on Monday, May 9th, to embark on a journey that will eventually take it to the fresh waters of the Great Lakes.

If you missed it, I am sure it will return to Charleston in the future--perhaps, next year if not before. The tour affords you an opportunity to personally touch history and envision life on the high seas aboard a Spanish galleon. In the meantime, enjoy the pictures I took during my visit on Sunday to this remarkable replica of the Spanish galleons.

For more information on the ship and its schedule, go to El Galeon.