The original Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria used by Christopher Columbus on his first voyage across the Atlantic were common trading vessels. The Santa Maria which Columbus never liked, ran aground and sank on Christmas Eve 1492 in Hispaniola (now Cap Haitien). She was a Nao, a type of cargo vessel. The Niña and Pinta were Caravels which were used by explorers during the Age of Discovery. The Pinta returned home and disappeared from History without a trace, but the Niña, now there's a woman with a past!
The Niña was Columbus' favorite and for good reason. She was named Santa Clara after the patron saint of Moguer. A Spanish vessel in those days had an official religious name but was generally known by nickname, which might be a feminine form of her masters patronmyic, or of her home port. Santa Clara was always Niña, after her master-owner Juan Nino of Moguer.
Vincente Yanez was her Captain on Columbus' First Voyage, and he later discovered the Amazon on an independent voyage. Built in the Ribera de Moguer, an estuary, now silted up, of the Rio Tinto, Niña made the entire First Voyage, bringing Columbus safely home. She accompanied the grand fleet of the Second Voyage to Hispaniola and Columbus selected her out of seventeen ships for his flagship on an exploratory voyage to Cuba, and purchased a half share in her.
She was the only vessel in West Indian waters to survive the hurricane of 1495, and then brought back the Admiral and 120 passengers to Spain in
1496. She was then chartered for an unauthorized voyage to Rome, and was captured by a corsair when leaving the port of Cagliari, and brought to an anchor at Cape Pula, Sardinia where she was stripped of her arms and crew. The Captain, Alonso Medel, escaped with a few men, stole a boat, rowed back to Niña, cut her cables and made sail.
She returned to Cadiz in time to sail for Hispaniola early in 1498, as advance guard of Columbus' Third Voyage. She was lying in Santo Domingo in 1500, and we last heard of her making a trading voyage to the Pearl Coast in 1501. The Niña logged at least 25,000 miles under Columbus' command.
In 1988, an American engineer and maritime historian, John Patrick Sarsfield, began building what was to become the first truly, historically correct replica of a 15th Century Caravel. John had discovered a group of master shipbuilders in Bahia, Brazil who were still using design and construction techniques dating back to the 15th Century.
It was in Valenca, Brazil, using only adzes, axes, hand saws, and chisels, in additiion to naturally-shaped timbers from the local forest, that the Sarsfield Niña was built.
Jonathan Nance, a British maritime historian and main researcher for the project produced a sail plan for the ship, which represents the Niña as she would have appeared during the eight recorded busy years of her life following her departure from the Canary Islands in September 1492.
In December 1991, the Niña left Brazil and sailed to Costa Rica on a 4000 mile unescorted maiden voyage to take part in the filming of 1492. Since then, the ship has visited over 300 ports in the U.S. She is the only 'sailing museum' which is continually 'discovering' new ports, while giving the public an opportunity to visit one of the greatest little ships in the world's history.