The Santa María was probably a medium sized nao (carrack), about 58 ft (17.7 m) long on deck, "very little larger than 100 toneladas" (100 tons, or tuns) burthen, or burden, and was used as the flagship for the expedition. The other ships of the Columbus expedition were the smaller caravel-type ships Santa Clara, remembered as La Niña ("The Girl"), and La Pinta ("The Painted One"). All these ships were second-hand (if not third or more) and were never meant for exploration. The Niña, Pinta, and the Santa María were modest sized merchant vessels comparable in size to a modern yacht, and not the largest ships in Europe at the time. The exact measurements of length and width of the three ships have not survived, but good estimates of their size can be judged from contemporary Spanish and Portuguese ship wrecks from the late 15th and early 16th centuries; These include the ballast piles and keel lengths of the Molasses Reef Wreck and Highborn Cay Wreck in the Bahamas. Both were caravel type vessels 22 m (72 ft) in length overall, 12.6 m (41 ft) keel length and 5 to 5.7 m (16 to 19 ft) in width, and rated between 100 and 150 tons burden. The Santa María, being Columbus' largest ship, was only about this size, and the Niña and Pinta were even tinier, at only 50 to 70 tons burden (updated dimensional estimates are discussed below in the section entitled Replicas).
The Santa María was built in Castro-Urdiales, Cantabria, in Spain's north-east. It seems the ship was known to her sailors as Marigalante, Spanish for "Gallant Maria". The naos employed on Columbus's second voyage were named Marigalante and Gallega. Bartolomé de Las Casas never used La Gallega, Marigalante or Santa María in his writings, preferring to use la Capitana or La Nao.
The Santa María had a single deck and three masts. She was the slowest of Columbus's vessels but performed well in the Atlantic crossing. After engaging in festivities and drinking, Columbus ordered that the crew continue sailing to Cuba late into the night. One-by-one the crew kept falling asleep until only a cabin boy was steering the ship which caused the ship to run aground off the present-day site of Cap-Haïtien, Haiti on December 25, 1492, and was lost. Realizing that the ship was beyond repair, Columbus ordered his men to strip the timbers from the ship. The timbers from the ship were later used to build La Navidad (Christmas) because the wreck occurred on Christmas Day, north from the modern Limonade.
The anchor of the Santa María now resides in the Musée du Panthéon National Haitien (MUPANAH), in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Columbus's crew was not composed of criminals as is widely believed. Many were experienced seamen from the port of Palos in Andalusia and its surrounding countryside, as well as from the region of Galicia in northwest Spain. It is true, however, that the Spanish sovereigns offered an amnesty to convicts who signed up for the voyage; still, only four men took up the offer: one who had killed a man in a fight, and three friends of his who had then helped him escape from jail.
Despite the romantic legend that the Queen of Spain had used a necklace that she had received from her husband the King as collateral for a loan, the voyage was principally financed by a syndicate of seven noble Genovese bankers resident in Seville (the group was linked to Amerigo Vespucci and funds belonging to Lorenzo di Pier Francesco de Medici). Hence, all the accounting and recording of the voyage was kept in Seville. This also applies to the second voyage, even though the syndicate had by then disbanded.
Very little is known definitively about the actual dimensions of this vessel, since no documentation or illustration has survived from that era. Interest in reconstructing the Santa María started in Spain at around 1890 for the 400th anniversary of Columbus's voyage. The 1892 reconstruction, by the Spanish government, depicted the ship as a nao. A subsequent replica built in 1929 depicts the Santa María as a caravel without the high forecastle of the nao. As the ship is most commonly considered to have been a nao, the 1992 reconstruction returned to that model, and is generally considered to be an authoritative representation of modern consensus among academics and historians.
The 1992 replica was built by the Scarano Brothers Boat Building Company in Albany who later cut the ship in half with a chainsaw and transported it by semi truck to the Scioto River in Columbus, OH who paid for the replica in 1990. The replica cost about 1.2 million dollars. The ship was constructed out of white cedar wood as opposed to an oak wood used on the original to give the ship a long life in the Scioto River and to save on cost. The main mast was carved out of a single douglas fir tree like the original and was equipped with a top sail (since removed). The ship was built using power tools, with a hull length of 29.6 m (97 ft), keel length 16.1 m (53 ft), beam 7.9 m (26 ft), depth 3.2 m (10 ft) and load 223.8 metric tons of displacement. The foremast is 9.7 m (32 ft) high, the mainmast is 15.9 m (52 ft) and mizzen mast is 10.4 m (34 ft). The replica was declared by Jose Maria Martinez-Hidalgo, an internationally recognized Spanish marine historian, to be the most authentic replica of the Santa María in the world during the ship's coronation on October 12, 1991:
- "I have studied Christopher Columbus for nearly fifty years. I can state that this Santa María has been perfectly rebuilt. Many compliments to the builders. I can think of only one real difference between this replica and the real Santa María. One was built in Europe, this one was built in America."
Anchored in "Deep Sea Adventure Lake", West Edmonton Mall's Santa María is another replica located in Canada. Built at False Creek in Vancouver, British Columbia, the ship was hand-carved and hand-painted and then transported in flatbed trucks across the Rocky Mountains to Edmonton, Alberta. (I would like to point out that though its name is the Santa Maria, the ship in West Edmonton Mall looks more like a Spanish Gallion instead of a 15th century carrack).
The functional replica of Santa María was built on the island of Madeira, between July 1997 and July 1998, in the fishing village of Camara de Lobos by Robert Wijntje, a dutchman and by local craftsmen. Length of that ship is 22 m (72 ft), and width of 7 m (23 ft). In 1998, the Santa María represented the Madeira Wine Expo 98 in Lisbon, where she was visited by over 97 thousand people in only 25 days. Since then thousands more have sailed and continue to sail aboard that Santa María which is situated in Funchal.