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Columbus Day Means Sails—Not Sales—for the Spanish Admiral Christopher Columbus

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Early on, Christopher Columbus XVII learned what hell it was to have a famous name and a proud lineage. As a young cadet in the Spanish Naval Academy, he was nearly driven up the mizzenmast by his navy mates. “Look, Christopher!” they’d shout, squinting at the horizon. “Look, it’s land.”

Christopher Columbus—the great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great great, great, great, great, great, great grandson of the Columbus who discovered America—weathered their hazing. In fact, he went on to become an admiral in the Spanish navy; he is the director of the Naval Museum of Madrid. And now, at age 60, Cristóbal Colon (Columbus’ name in Spanish) has been given the commission of a lifetime: Organize a re-creation of Columbus’ 1492 discovery of the New World. In time for a 500th anniversary celebration, at a cost of $2 million, he will supervise the building of replicas of the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria. And in command? Lieut. Christopher Columbus XVIII, the admiral’s 35-year-old son. “Given our names,” says the admiral, “they couldn’t have left us out, could they?”

Though a Columbus aficionado—he has a library piled high with books on his famous forebear—he is hardly in awe of Columbus I. In fact, he talks of his ancestor with such familiarity and warmth that it seems the original Columbus sailed off this mortal coil only a few months ago. “What people forget,” he says, “is that Columbus was a fantastic sailor. He could catch a breeze just by smelling it.”

What’s more, adds the admiral, swept away by his passion for the subject, “Aren’t you impressed and moved by the storm and the nightingales?” He launches into the story: “There was an incredible storm on his return voyage in 1493; everything was breaking apart and the sailors were terrified. In the middle of all this Columbus was writing in his log. He was describing the dawn before the gale had started up. He wrote that it had been so beautiful that it was almost as if ‘nightingales were singing.’ Just imagine thinking that and writing it down at such a chaotic moment. I was once caught in a storm just as bad outside Bombay, and it was all I could do to crawl into my bed in my cabin. Yet there was Columbus calmly dipping his quill into an inkstand and writing on a bit of parchment.”

When Columbus returned to Spain in 1493, Queen Isabella showered her new Admiral of the Ocean Sea with lofty titles. The present admiral has inherited them, although he admits that, aside from sentimental value, they are largely meaningless. “I am the Duke of Veragua,” he says, “which is Colombia, Panama and part of Mexico. And I am Marques of Jamaica,” he adds, laughing, “which is, of course, independent.” Still, like a man with titles, the admiral lives well, with his wife of 36 years, Anunciada, in a palatial 16-room apartment in a residential section of Madrid. The antique furnishings include such priceless heirlooms as two paintings by Goya. Yet, he insists, “I’ve always been poor and had cheaper cars than my brother naval officers. I’m not rich, you know.”

Were it not for the Spanish civil war (1936-39), he might well have been. During that bloody and tragic period his family’s archives were “plundered,” the great estates parceled up and sold. One particularly bitter blow was the confiscation of the Duke of Veragua’s ranch for fighting bulls. “That was really sad,” says the admiral. “They were the fiercest bulls in the land, pure bloodstock. Now they are owned by other people who have been crossbreeding and have ruined the strain.”

The admiral, who joined the navy in 1943, first served on coast guard patrol boats. Despite his aristocratic background, the duty was plebeian. “I was based in the north,” he recalls. “We had to make sure French fishermen didn’t poach in Spanish fishing grounds. Being called what I’m called didn’t help at all.” He went on to successively larger ships, but his favorite command was as captain of the Naval Academy training ship Juan Sebastian Elcano, a three-masted schooner. “It’s boring with motor power,” Columbus maintains. “You are always looking for calm waters to make speed. But under sail,” he adds with gusto, “you are looking for stormy weather, for that’s where the power is. You have to get in there as close as you dare.”

To the admiral’s delight, his son shares his taste for antique wind propulsion. Though currently a helicopter pilot, young Christopher would trade his chopper in a moment to be in command of the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria. “It’s something I want very badly,” he admits frankly. He need not worry. Naval authorities have privately assured him he will be at one of the helms when the three-ship squadron sails from Palso, Spain on Aug. 3, 1992, the anniversary of Columbus’ departure. While Columbus’ first New World landfall, San Salvador, might have changed a bit in the past 500 years, the mode of transport will be authentic. The ships will be built of oak and pine trees that have already been selected from the national forests. Lieutenant Columbus will be using the same instruments and charts that his famous ancestor used. Landfall is expected Oct. 12, 1992—Columbus Day.

The lieutenant also shares the admiral’s passion for history. “I am even worse than my father,” he admits. “I read everything about Columbus I can lay my hands on. I have bookstores around the world sending me books that are difficult to get hold of, books that are half forgotten. Columbus is family, and you love your family.” It is a sentiment his father understands. “You can’t really forget about Columbus,” says the admiral, “when you have the same name.”