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Commentary & Analysis

What Can the Niña Teach Us?

By Pete Rivard August 18,

By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: August 18, 2005

By Pete Rivard August 18, 2005 -- There's a replica of the Niña, one of Columbus' original 1492 three-ship fleet, built in 1991, which tours various ports in the Western Hemisphere. Such is the size of this boat, er -- ship, that it easily sails most of the way up the Mississippi and fifteen or so miles up its St. Croix tributary to Hudson, Wisconsin. Which is where my 15 year-old son Ethan and I toured the traveling museum last Saturday. If you are given to the sort of metaphorical rumination cherished by ad writers and authors of pulp management advice slapped together for people who don't read real books, you could do worse than to visit the Niña, study up on her bio, and apply the lessons to today's business climate. The Niña is a caravel, a form of meat and potatoes working ship popular on voyages of discovery due to the versatility and dependability of the particular design. The actual Niña disappeared into history, never to be rediscovered and her remains photographed. Boat building in the 15th century was normally done to designs in the builder's head, rarely committed to a drawing. So nobody knows how closely the replica matches the original, though there is enough about her in the written record for the ship builders to make some educated guesses. For instance, the unappealing, dull brown of her hull is the result of constant application of a historically correct sealant formulated from pitch and linseed oil. What can the Niña teach us about vigilance and security? The current Niña has a 66-foot long deck. I've sunk longer putts. Some historians put the length of the original's deck as short as 45 feet, so this replica may well be a larger copy of the original. The size of such a ship was decided by the height of the tree from which the keel was carved. The remainder of the ship, from the width of its beam to the height of its masts, was constructed to accepted proportions to the keel. Even so, the first thought in my head upon visiting the Niña was that only a damn fool would sail across the Atlantic on anything as tiny and open as this rig. What can the Niña teach us about maximizing resources? Columbus apparently sailed most of the way across the Atlantic on the Niña, and all the way back, preferring her to his larger flagship, the Santa Maria. By all accounts the Santa Maria was an ocean-going truck, slow and clumsy. The Niña was nimble and rigged to take full advantage of any wind from any quarter. Columbus' instincts were dead accurate, as the Santa Maria sank like a stone on her first voyage during a storm, unable to maneuver clear of the rocks off Hispaniola's shore. What can the Santa Maria teach us about survival? So pleased was the Admiral with the Niña that he promptly purchased a half interest in her upon his return from the New World. High risk, high reward investing. All in all, he sailed her there and back again three times and logged over 25,000 miles on her. What can the Niña teach us about customer loyalty? The manifests of the original Niña show a crew of 27. Look at the photo showing the line of visitors waiting their turn on the Niña. If you take most of the people on the dock and add them to the folks already on board, you'd have the right number for Columbus' crew. And some idea of what the deck must have looked like, as the crew worked, ate and slept on deck, in all weather. Below decks, every square inch was crammed with supplies, spare parts and livestock (chickens, pigs, horses, cows and the like). The concept of the hammock was unknown to Europeans until they encountered its use by the indigenous Americans. On the way over to the New World, a sailor slept right on the deck planking, or if lucky, on a coil of rope. What can Columbus's first voyage teach us about technology and innovation? Looking at Ethan leaning over the railing I was reminded that a lad his age back in 1492 would have been a common enough sight in an ocean-going crew. That's enough to break a parent's heart, until you remember that many would have regarded a berth on such a ship as their lucky break in life and their only hope for rescue from grinding poverty and infrequent meals. Check out the story of the original Niña and the replica at http://www.thenina.com/. Who knows what you'll learn that you can apply to the business at hand.

 

 

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