Sitting on a swinging bench Wednesday near the seawall at Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park, Greta Lundgren and Carla Orono felt they had stepped back in time as a pair of 15th-century ships motored toward them up the Beaufort River.
"It's a little surreal to see something like that in today's day and age," said Lundgren, who was part of a tour group from Newark, Del. "Feels a little out of place but in a really neat way."
"It's a blast from the past, that's for sure," Orono added.
The two women were among more than 20 people who watched as the Nina and Pinta, replicas of the original vessels famously steered across the Atlantic Ocean by explorer Christopher Columbus and his sailors more than 500 years ago, came to port at the Downtown Marina of Beaufort.
Billed as a floating museum, the ships were built by the Columbus Foundation, a nonprofit organization in the British Virgin Islands, as a way to help people learn about the caravel, a type of Portuguese ship used by Columbus and many early explorers to discover the New World.
"This is a history lesson," said Morgan Sanger, the senior captain of both vessels. "These are the only two ships of that era that exist."
The boats have between 1,900 and 4,000 square feet of sail, though they often rely on large diesel motors to get around, according to the Columbus Foundation.
Built entirely by hand by shipwrights in Brazil for $600,000, the 65-foot, 80-ton Nina launched in 1992 and is returning to Beaufort for the fourth time, Sanger said. The 85-foot, 101-ton Pinta, 50 percent larger than Columbus' original vessel, was built in 2005 for $2 million and is making its first voyage to Beaufort.
Both ships carry substantially fewer passengers than their historic namesakes. Believed to be Columbus' favorite of his ships for its speed, maneuverability and safety, the Nina ferried 20 crew members from Spain to Hispaniola on Columbus' maiden voyage in 1492, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History. Now, the vessel is manned by just five crew members and a captain. Six crew members and a captain help sail the Pinta, originally manned by 26 crew members, according to the museum.
Designed to be historically accurate, the ships are not without a few present-day conveniences, including modern radio equipment, a bar and the Pinta's 40-foot air-conditioned main cabin.
The ships are available for dockside tours through Sunday at the Downtown Marina.
Beaufort is among the ships' 30 scheduled stops this year, including visits next month to Georgetown and Philadelphia, according to the Columbus Foundation.