Top view of Nao Santa Maria in Beaufort

Piloting a Historic Replica

By Howard Heckrotte with Douglas Nelson

Photos by Bob Corso

The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources 25-foot twin-engine fast boat propelled us through rain and 3- to 4-foot seas at over 35 knots for a rendezvous with the Santa Maria. The North Atlantic waves pitched and yawed the two vessels. When a higher wave materialized, the 25-footer went into thin air, engines over-revving before thudding back into a trough, testing knee and shoulder sinews as white knuckles gripped the center-console grab rail.

The DNR officer smiled thinly and throttled back a bit, continuing a course to our rendezvous point, unseen in the rain and light fog but somewhere a few miles ahead. I was wondering how the boarding would take place when the ship’s profile appeared out of the sea mist, looking daunting.

“Any professional tips you have for boarding would be gratefully received!” I stammered.

The DNR officer smiled broadly. “When we get alongside, look for the best chance to step off this boat and onto the vessel. Once you commit to jump, don’t back out; just do it!”

I was hoping for something more encouraging.

The first to jump, shrimp boat Capt. John Payne, had volunteered to act as pilot through St. Helena Sound, the Coosaw River and the Beaufort River, all waters that shoal heavily inside the channel markers. He leapt gracefully through the gunwale hatch, slipping backward as the deck pitched and getting one leg between the boats. Santa Maria’s athletic crew grabbed his shoulders and pulled him on deck.

Holding onto a console grab rail, I stepped to the DNR boat’s gunwale. The tall ship’s fenders formed a gap greater than 2 feet between the two boats. When the smaller boat reached its high point, I let go of the rail and jumped as far into the hatch opening as I could. Strong hands grabbed my arms. I was on Santa Maria’s deck! I looked back to see the DNR boat from the 21st century slipping away and turned to look at Santa Maria’s helm station. It was suddenly 1492.

Santa Maria heads to Beaufort, South Carolina

Bringing a historic vessel replica into a new port isn’t a serendipitous project. Planning began months before boarding by the Santa Elena Foundation, which runs a living history center in downtown Beaufort. Now that America’s Boating Club of Beaufort had provided a qualified route, that timing, with tides, would provide safe passage for Santa Maria.

The logistics fell into place handily. The City of Beaufort put a barge alongside the seawall as a berth for the ship, allowing installation of a gangplank to provide access for visitors.

The Santa Elena Foundation’s mission is to discover, preserve and share the first century of European history in North America through the rise and fall of the settlement of Santa Elena on Parris Island. The foundation’s board had arranged for the swift boat to rendezvous with the vessel. I was there at the request of the ship’s general manager and the foundation’s executive director, Andy Beal.

For a microsecond, I felt the elation of a 10-year-old living out “Treasure Island,” before my mind grasped the reality of the situation and began preparations for the passage.

John and the ship’s First Mate Miguel worked with the captain to figure out how to hook up the computerized chart plotter on John’s laptop. I took my turn at the tiller until another crewmember relieved me. With permission, I entered the cabin to set up paper charts on the navigation table. Laying out the intended track from our rendezvous point, I asked the helmsman for a change of course. In seconds, we were headed into the sound, and I marked off a waypoint.

This vessel had sophisticated, easy-to-read navigation, but it seemed inappropriate to use it. Thus, I took out my handheld VHF and GPS and continued working with paper. As we approached our first waypoint, John announced that his plotter was up and reading. Then he teased out one of 7,000 spaghetti strands of working routes for our track to Beaufort. Until we crossed over the COLREGS demarcation line, this was our primary guide. I texted our shore coordinator that we were aboard and proceeding.

By 8:10 a.m., a text came in from Finisterra II, a lobster boat-style yacht captained by fellow squadron member Owen Hand and crewed by Wayne Heath. This fully founded boat had 80 years of experience on board and great navigation tools. The ship’s VHF was on Channel 17, so I set my handheld on Channel 16. We were entering a narrowing of the entrance, and John stood alternately at the port and starboard rails, hand signaling turning directions to the helmsman. These ships have no visibility over the bow due to the height of the prow, so watching the channel requires great agility.

Santa Maria, Santa Maria, Santa Maria. This is Finisterra on VHF 16, 1 watt, over.”

“Finisterra, this is Santa Maria. Please choose a working channel, and keep power at 1 watt, over.”

“Finisterra switching to 68, clear 16.”

With communications and protocols established, we had a plan. Finisterra was one of our squadron surveying vessels, and the crew knew the waters well. We agreed that it would take the lead going into the narrow, shallow waters, reporting depths less than 20 feet and staying 200 feet ahead. This gave everyone on board great relief. Now helm and pilot could concentrate on traffic and steering.

I asked Finisterra to plot a line to determine the distance to Brickyard Point, the shallowest part of the trip; 17.1 miles came the answer. I relayed this to John and the captain. They had five hours of favorable tide providing at least 12 feet of water through the point. John recommended going faster, and the captain eased the throttles forward. We continued at 7 knots. This would put us through the cut at high tide with a depth of 18 feet (mean lower low water plus the height of tide).

We approached until two minutes out when John requested we slow down in case we ran out of water. Finisterra continued reporting depths, and we made it through the cut without issue, which was a good thing because cheering well-wishers thronged the docks and landing inside the cut. I texted base that we made it through.

Our last hurdle down the narrow Beaufort River was the Lady’s Island Swing Bridge. We requested an opening, and the operator told us it opened on the hour and half-hour only. Our timing was perfect as we approached on the half hour, and after some delay, the bridge opened. We passed slowly through the 90-foot-wide span, and once clear of the bridge, we heard a percussive report: A signal cannon announced our arrival! Behind it, the seawall was crowded with onlookers. The captain and pilot would need some time to dock due to running tides and small maneuvering room, but the vessel docked flawlessly.

Santa Maria heads southbound to Brunswick, Georgia

Wearing foul-weather gear and a life vest, I leapt aboard the Santa Maria at 5:50 a.m. as the gangplank was already shipped. The crew milled about good-naturedly on the main deck. Danny took my ditty bag and headed off to the bunkroom, and I handed the cook a sack with cookies and loaves of bread. I hailed First Mate Miguel, who was on the poop deck looking through the window port at the chart plotter.

Immediately at my side, Angel, the general manager, had invited me to crew to Brunswick, Georgia, a few days prior. I’d accepted with great reservation, wondering how I’d earn my keep. I surrendered my passport and wallet, which would be left with the captain. (I enjoy the tradition because it makes me feel so connected to the adventure.) Then I stepped up the ladder to the poop deck.

Miguel and Capt. Charley asked about departure. Charley wanted good light to pass through the bridge’s swing span and opted for 7 a.m. I assured him we would have plenty of light by 6:40, and anyway, the bridge would not open to boat traffic until sometime between 7 and 9 a.m. We pulled away from the seawall, hailed the bridge and stood off, queued with four other boats.

I began to grow impatient. The tide was behind us, pushing toward the bridge, which didn’t seem to be opening. Finally, I asked the captain if I could hail the bridge and remind them that we were waiting. He seemed relieved.

I established contact and chose my words carefully: “Lady’s Island swing bridge, this is foreign-flagged vessel Nao Santa Maria. We are restricted in our ability to maneuver, and the current is pushing us toward the bridge. A quick opening would be helpful as we avoid other boats awaiting passage north. Over.” Immediately, we heard the warning bell on the bridge span, and the gates stopped car traffic. I believe I heard some braking tires screech. We passed through at 6:50 a.m.

Once through, we were greeted by Halcyon II, a 30-foot cabin cruiser that would lead us through the narrows of Brickyard Point. Departure would put us there at exactly high tide and should give 19 feet of depth. Of course, the northeast wind would affect the water height. Halcyon II stayed on channel 68 and continued sounding reports. While our vessel had a depth sounder, having a vessel 300 feet ahead give soundings was a reassuring safety tool.

As we approached Brickyard Point, the reports came more frequently as the channel depth declined. Twenty feet, then 19, 18, 17, and finally 20 feet again. These depths are far lower than the charts indicated, so I was glad to be through. If the crew had any second thoughts, I couldn’t tell; they were stoic and poised for action. Soon after Brickyard, Halcyon II retired from duty with a hail and farewell.

Now we made passage through Saint Helena Sound. The next 18 miles would be tense. The wind made the sound ever shallower, and we were on an outgoing tide. We stayed close on the channel markers and found depths less than reassuring. We needed more than 10 feet of water, and in places we saw only 12 feet. The widening of the Coosaw River and the sound did not give any relief. Saint Helena Sound, this “Bay of Shoals” as the Spanish described it, gives little room for error, and recorded depths do not reflect actual conditions.

It was a welcome sight when we passed the Combahee Bank Light and could make out the nun buoys trailing toward the open ocean. By noon, a happy crew started sea watch. We passed C“1” — the outer sea buoy of the sound and thus into the North Atlantic and on towards Brunswick.

The crew had the foresail up and now attended the mainsail. The crew stood by the halyards and braces, as smiling, singing sailors climbed the ratlines to the main yard, shaking out reef and buntlines and letting the square sail fly. I stood among giants, feeling privileged to watch this centuries’ old ritual. Somewhere in these tasks the burden of navigating lifted, and I breathed deeply.

My watch was on the whip staff, a vertical tiller. I shared this with Kenny and frequently exchanged views with the captain and Miguel, so I was often looking at the chart plotter and comparing our track with the track recorded days before. Finally, the watch changed, and I took time for lunch, a delicious beans and rice dish that’s a staple throughout the Spanish Main. We washed our own plates and flatware and went back on deck.

My first six hours certainly had been exciting! It was easy to grab a catnap under a ship’s ladder. At more than 8 miles out, we could easily spot lighthouses, but the entrance buoys to the many sounds on the Georgia coast were over the horizon. I could only guess where we were. Our heading was nearly west-southwest, and I suggested we head south-southwest to bring up the St. Simons entrance buoy without a lot of maneuvering. We were still 12 hours away, and Capt. Charley concurred as he redirected our course.

Shipboard routine went smoothly, with mundane tasks attended with humor and care. Lines occasionally needed tending and coiling, and it was a relief to help. I spent parts of the afternoon talking with a history center volunteer taking passage, Rebecca Howard, who was absent from the deck for a long while, probably due to Dramamine. I envied her enthusiasm for the voyage. She was just living in the moment with not a care in the world.

Sometime in the afternoon, I went down to the scullery (pan washing station) and scrubbed pots and ladles. No one asked, but as a cook on many boats, I knew this hospitable act would be well received.

Around 7 p.m., the captain ordered the sails to be struck, and I watched the crew attend to the most complex machine of the ages. My sole task was tending a line called the main brace. Seeing these men and women work together was inspirational. After striking sails, we had dinner, again a delicious repast.

My watch was from 8 p.m. to midnight. It was beautiful with few white caps. West of us, I could make out a dark shore and the occasional work lights of shrimp boats, probably on the five-fathom line (about 3 miles offshore). A faint glow above the trees probably came from the industry in Brunswick, still many miles ahead.

Rebecca stood watch with me. We talked a while and were visited periodically by a crew person carrying a clipboard and notating the odd gauge or instrument. Capt. Charley would retire to his cabin briefly and reappear at the chart table. Staying on course was done with a monstrous autopilot ram arm and pump; only once did the captain adjust the twin-engine throttles, retarding them to slow our passage. It was better to take longer to arrive than do circles at the destination while awaiting sunrise for entry to the channel.

At midnight, shadows appeared on deck — the next watch. Their watch captain was Second Mate Pablo, a strong and capable leader with a great sense of humor. Only moments after coming on deck, he had all the watch standers roaring with laughter and sharing such camaraderie.

It felt good to retire, until I realized I had no idea which bunk was mine. I went below decks, shed my life vest and foul-weather gear, and took my penlight. The bunkroom is dark and has little ambient light. It does have ambient noise. The thrumming of twin John Deere diesels, the squishing surge of the autopilot hydraulic pump, the rumble of the rudder balance wheel rolling on the wood deck, the scream of the hydraulic ram arm, and the rivet-gun popping of high-pressure valves as the hydraulic pump unloads. Once these sounds make sense, they don’t deprive anyone of sleep. Fortunately, my bunk was on the bottom, and I found it quickly. The bunkroom was narrow and crowded. Scarcely a foot separated the bunk rows, and the space was necessarily co-ed. It turned out my bunk was across a narrow aisle from the youngest crewmember, a girl from Puerto Rico. I drew my privacy screen and was instantly asleep.

I awoke at dawn and went on deck in time to see the St. Simon’s lighthouse going by. We were in the Brunswick Channel, with Capt. Charley at the engine controls and Sophia on the whip staff. I mention her name because I sense when the ship returns she will be captain.

We turned into the channel, heading to the dock where Santa Maria would be available for tours. The captain had to turn the boat and back it in with only 10 feet of spare width, and he did so confidently with scarcely a touch on the bow thruster. The whole crew went about docking tasks without haste and with the certitude that comes with practiced execution. Once docked, the crew prepared the ship for tours, removing or concealing everything that was not 1492. Again, they did it with no haste but a steady pace.

The last item was setting the gangplank. At this time, I gathered my gear, waved, shouted “Adiós todos” and took my hasty departure.

Owen and Wayne were at the dock to return me to Beaufort. I reflected on what a privilege it had been to share a day with these extraordinary people. They showed such love and respect for each other and acted like an extended family. To all who prepared me for this opportunity for the last 30-plus years, I offer my effusive thanks and assure you I added honor and prestige to the squadron.


Howard Heckrotte has been a member of America’s Boating Club of Beaufort for 31 years and has achieved the grade of Junior Navigator. He has also taken on-water courses with the American Sailing Association. He and Doug Nelson lecture on 16th-century navigation for the Santa Elena Foundation, which introduced him to the Nao Santa Maria project. He cruises the southeast coast from North Carolina to Florida and resides on Lady’s Island near Beaufort, South Carolina.

This article first appeared in the Beaufort Log, newsletter of Beaufort Sail & Power Squadron/26.

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