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What Is the Santa Maria?

A portrait of Christopher Columbus, the explorer who sailed on the Santa Maria.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 20 September 2014
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The Santa Maria was a ship used by Christopher Columbus in his 1492 voyage to the New World. Along with the Niña and the Pinta, it made up a fleet of ships which were supposed to be sailing to Asia, but ended up at the Americas instead. Many replicas of the Santa Maria have been built around the world, and it's even possible to sail on one, for people who are interested in getting a feel for what the voyage might have been like.

The ship was owned by Juan de la Cosa, an explorer who also served as Captain, and it was formally known as the Santa Maria de la Immaculada Concepcion, or “Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception.” It was a carrack, a type of ship designed specifically for carrying cargo. Carracks were built with the goal of creating as much room as possible, not necessarily with the aim of crew comfort, maneuverability, or durability, and this proved to be a problem for the Santa Maria.

While this ship may be famous today, no one is actually sure what it looked like. Contemporary accounts indicate that it had the classic high rounded stern of a carrack, with a single deck and three masts, but no one thought to paint or draw a picture of the ship before it sailed. As a result, the numerous replicas sailing the high seas are based purely on conjecture and information about similar ships, not the actual configuration of the Santa Maria.

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Columbus sailed on the Santa Maria, making it the flagship of his fleet. The ship was known as “La Gallega,” and it was crewed by 40 men, most of whom were experienced sailors. Columbus actually had a great deal of trouble recruiting sailors for his expedition, as many people were highly skeptical about the outcome of the voyage, and they were understandably wary of setting sail across unknown waters.

The Santa Maria never reached the American continent. It ran aground in what is now known as Haiti and it was broken up, with its timbers being used to construct a fort. Some of the crew were left onshore because they could not be accommodated on the other ships of the fleet, with Columbus promising to collect them later. Some of the timbers of the Santa Maria may well be floating around somewhere in Haiti, as early colonists were fond of reusing and recycling the building materials they had.

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