When Captain Pedro Menendez de Aviles sailed into present day Matanzas Bay in 1565 on a galleon named San Pelayo, he brought with him a fleet of galleons and about 1,000 men. On the voyage from Spain to the New World, most of those men lived in cramped quarters, braved unpredictable weather, and had to endure chronic food shortages.
I recently visited El Galeón, a replica of a ship like Menendez’s, which is docked in St. Augustine’s harbor. After my tour, I came away with an excellent understanding of what life was like aboard it and other galleons of the time.
I could hear the roar of the men’s conversations as they worked the sails. I could hear them shouting over the sounds of the wind. I could imagine the smell of the hold below deck – where they huddled amid sheep, cows and pigs during storms. I could feel their boredom of windless days, when they were stuck drifting at sea.
They say the past is not dead, that it’s not even past. That certainly feels true aboard El Galeón. Open to the public for daily tours through mid-July, the recreated armed merchant vessel is an almost exact replica of the one Menendez commanded when he founded St. Augustine. As such, it gives visitors a unique glimpse into the history of the city, which will celebrate its 450th anniversary next year.
Exploring the ship also provides a hands-on history lesson about galleons in general. Large multi-deck sailing ships, they were used by European states to transport cargo around the world from the 16th to 18th centuries. El Galeón, built in Spain in 2009, “is a standard galleon of the time,” crew member Ulises Custodio told me when I boarded for a recent tour. “We try to sail as Pedro Menendez did,” he said. “Everything on the ship is as an exact replica as can be.”
The ship is run by 12 Spanish English-speaking crew members, who sail it around the world for tours. The crew is stationed on deck to guide visitors and answer questions. Visitors are free to tour on their own, and can stay as long as they wish. There is an exhibit about the San Pelayo on the ship’s gun deck, and visitors can also take an audio tour by downloading an app on their iPhone.
After I came aboard, the first thing I noticed was the sails. At that time, sails were only designed with square rigging, which meant they were fixed, Custodio said. Ships could not tack. They could only catch wind coming from behind, and “when they didn’t have the right wind, they had no choice but to wait for it to come back.”
It was fascinating exploring the different decks, including “the noble area,” where the wealthy men who financed the galleons lived in comfort with private bed chambers, dining area, and balcony.
“Nobility wanted to be involved in the adventure too,” Custodio said.
Touring El Galeón, I could relate to that.