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Docking tall ship a tall order in Port Royal

It takes a lot of planning to bring a tall ship into a small port.

It was a challenge this past week when the El Galeon arrived in Port Royal Thursday to cheering crowds, and it was a challenge 450 years ago when explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles first sailed into the sound of the same name in search of a potential outpost.

“We were told it was impossible,” Beall said, laughing as he stood on the dock at Port Royal Landing watching the crew tie off the 125-foot tall sailing ship.

“(But) the reason (the crew of El Galeon) was able to come into Port Royal is for the same reason the Spaniards were able to come here,” said Andrew Beall, executive director for the Santa Elena Foundation. “Because of the great harbor.”

The arrival of the massive ship is part of a month-long series of events meant to commemorate the 450th anniversary of Santa Elena — the Spanish settlement that lasted more than two decades on what is now Parris Island.

On Thursday, El Galeon and her crew retraced the exact voyage made by de Aviles from St. Augustine to Santa Elena in 1566 down to even the day, but getting the nearly 500-ton replica of a 16th Century Spanish cargo vessel to Beaufort County took some doing.

Beall and the foundation staff, who began working more than a year ago to bring the ship to the area, knew they couldn’t just sail it up and tie it off anywhere.

“There’s no true dock in Beaufort that can handle a vessel of this size,” he said.

Working with the Spanish organization that owns and operates El Galeon, Beall and his team originally thought of bringing the tall ship to Beaufort’s seawall at the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park.

But that would mean bringing the ship up through St. Helena Sound and down the narrow channels of the intracoastal waterway since the only bridge the tall ship could pass through is the Woods Memorial Bridge, a swing bridge, in Beaufort. But that route was deemed to shallow for the El Galeon.

And even if the ship managed to get through the waterway, Beaufort’s sharply changing tides would make it next to impossible to moor along the seawall.

“We had some engineering challenges to work out,” Beall said.

The solution, aptly enough, came by way of history.

Why not follow the route de Aviles took through the deep and wide waters of Port Royal Sound and keep going up the Beaufort River to Port Royal Landing perhaps? That seemed doable, Beall said.

Still, there was the question of a dock big enough to handle what was essentially an ocean-going vessel.

Back then, the crews of the great Spanish fleets would have simply dropped anchor once in sight of land, then rowed to shore by way of — you guessed it — rowboats.

Enter Duncan O’Quinn of O’Quinn Marine Construction.

The family-owned company has been building docks, wooden bridges, seawalls, bulkheads and all manner of structures around Beaufort County’s waterways for three generations.

If anyone could build it, or come up with a solution, it was O’Quinn, Beall said.

“Duncan, being a sailor himself, said, ‘Look we can solve this,’ ” he said.

What O’Quinn proposed was a floating dock, or a barge, similar to those in Savannah, that would be sturdy enough to hold the tall ship in place and yet flexible enough to adapt to the rise and fall of an 8- to 9-foot tidal change.

O’Quinn even had a barge in mind — his.

By using one of the company’s working barges used for building docks, O’Quinn and his crew were able to retrofit the structure and secure it with two massive 12-inch pylons, or “spuds,” secured to the river bottom below.

What does he think of his “work horse” now?

“I didn’t think I’d ever see a huge Spanish galleon tied up to one of our barges,” he said, standing in the shadow of the tall ship on Thursday.

The barge is nestled just in front of the docks at the end of 11th Street in Port Royal, where the El Galeon is tethered and now calls home — if only for a short while.

It’s just the kind of seagoing ingenuity that might have impressed de Aviles, if he were here today that is.

“But I think I’m more impressed with their ingenuity and their manpower,” O’Quinn said looking at the ship’s steep sides. “I’m more amazed at them coming in here.”


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Mindy Lucas: 843-706-8152, @MindyatIPBG

If you go

Visitors to El Galeon will learn about the craftsmanship and grandeur of the Spanish fleet ships that sailed to the New World centuries ago.

As part of a month-long series of events meant to commemorate the 450th anniversary of Santa Elena, public tours of the ship will be offered from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. through May 1.

Tickets are $10 — or $5 for ages 5-12 — and can be purchased at the docks or online.

Then, the center will hold a grand opening celebration and ribbon-cutting at 11 a.m. April 30 at the Santa Elena History Center, at 1501 Bay St., Beaufort. A new interactive exhibit will be unveiled. A barbecue festival with music, performances and demonstrations will follow from noon to 3 p.m. in the courtyard across North Street from the center.

For details on the commemorations or more on Santa Elena, visit www.santa-elena.org.

El Galeon at a Glance

▪  Built in 2009, the three-masted tall ship is a full-scale replica of a 16th Century Spanish cargo vessel.

▪  The ship is owned and operated by the Nao Victoria Foundation, a Spanish nonprofit organization that specializes in promoting historical events through two ships — El Galeon and the Nao Victoria.

▪  El Galeon is commanded by Capt. Rosario Fernández Rodríguez and maneuvered by 22 crew members.

▪  The ship is 170-feet long, 125-feet tall, weighs 495 tons and draws 10.5 feet of water.

▪  El Galeon covered more than 35,000 nautical miles between 2010 to 2013 sailing across the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans, as well as the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Southern China Sea, the Aegean Sea, the Bosporus Strait and the Caribbean Sea. Visitors in almost 50 ports from all over the world have stepped foot on her decks.

Source: The Nao Victoria Foundation

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