It's Columbus days with docking of Nina, Pinta replicas

The Nina was built to scale without power tools and using traditional construction methods

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Vic Bickel hasn't showered since Cincinnati -- four days ago.

Where he lives, there are no showers. There's no refrigerator, no Internet connection, no AC, no privacy.

For him and his crew, the luxuries of home are replaced by a passion for traveling, history and the vastness of whatever sea, river or canal they happen to be on that week.

Until Oct. 4, it's our own Allegheny River.

Mr. Bickel is first mate on the Nina, a replica of Christopher Columbus' prized vessel. With its sister ship the Pinta trailing behind, the floating museums docked at the North Shore Riverfront Park Thursday afternoon, the latest stop on their 2012 tour.

A 15th-century-style ship, the Nina was built to scale without power tools and using traditional construction methods.

Life on this ship, which took its maiden voyage in 1991, is also a look back in time.

Although somewhat modernized for the crew's comfort, the living quarters under the deck are so tiny and cramped, there's only a couple of places one can stand upright. Curtains separate each bed, and there's little privacy.

"When is the last time someone my age lived in a bunk bed?" said Mr. Bickel, 52, of Folsom, Calif.

The five sailors are used to the "Nina Dance" -- the not-so-delicate way of getting around the cabin.

Their sleeping quarters are lined with necessities: bags of clothes, toilet paper, boots. Mr. Bickel, an engineer who has been on the ship four years, sleeps alongside a football, a copy of the New Yorker, and several wristwatches hanging above his head.

Interestingly, time is of utmost importance here.

Each crew member sleeps four hours, then works four hours. Before he knows it, Mr. Bickel said, someone is shaking him awake to start the next shift.

As first mate, his duties include steering the ship. Wheel navigation didn't come around for another 100 years, so he uses an authentic wooden arm. The ship is motorized, but they let down the sails and save the fuel when they can.

"Nobody has much experience sailing a 15th-century caravel," said the Nina's cook, Betsy Byrd, 58.

A few crew members have sailing experience, but they've had to unlearn some of those techniques. The U.S. Coast Guard standards require the boat have a navigation system, and they've learned skills as they go along.

Down below, there are some features of life on land: a TV and DVD player, laptops, cameras, magazines. A generator powers the electronics. In the galley (kitchen) there's chocolate, chips, spices, a freezer full of meat and a 1,000-pound ice chest stocked with food.

"We do have some of the comforts of home," Mr. Bickel said.

And, in a crude bathroom, there's a toilet. A fake rubber hand hangs from the ceiling and serves an actual purpose: it holds the lid in place.

A teacher from Panama City, Fla., Ms. Byrd has spent her year aboard in the galley. She's responsible for grocery shopping whenever they dock and making the "meat and potatoes" captain eat his vegetables. Her stove is outfitted with a support case that pivots the appliance back and forth with the movement of the ship.

Because many crew members are volunteers and stay for just a few months, Ms. Byrd has periodically adapted her meals for the diet restrictions of diabetics, Muslims and vegetarians.

"I'm here to feed a hungry crew," she said.

Like many who work on the Nina, Ms. Byrd was lured to the ship when it passed through her hometown.

"My normal life will call me home when it's time," she said.

Now that they've docked, the crew will spend most of their time in Pittsburgh telling people about their journey. They may have time to catch a football game. Ms. Byrd will go grocery shopping.

And everyone will hit the showers at a nearby hotel.

The ships are open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. for self-guided tours. Admission is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and $6 for students 5 to 16. Children 4 and under, free.


Molly Born: or 412-263-1944.


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