Following Columbus: The team trying to rewrite the explorer's route

By Gemma Handy
Providenciales, Turks & Caicos

Image source, Jon Nickson/
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The team wants to retrace the route Columbus took in 1492

More than 500 years after Christopher Columbus made his first fateful landfall in the New World, modern day adventurers from Turks and Caicos are retracing his route on a quest to rewrite history.

The Italian explorer's momentous transatlantic voyage in 1492 was hailed as the first meeting between a European and the Western Hemisphere since the Vikings - a feat that would change the course of history forever.

Image source, AFP
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Columbus' first steps in the Americas have been the subject of many paintings

But precisely where he initially set foot has been disputed for centuries, with as many as 10 islands across the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos (TCI) claiming the accolade.

Now a team of sailors and a historian have made it their mission through a series of maritime expeditions to prove that Columbus' arrival in the Americas was on Grand Turk, TCI's capital isle.

While their theory may not be popular among Bahamians who have long claimed San Salvador as the historic site, they say they want to "set the history books straight".

If successful, it could also be an enormous tourism boost to the tiny British territory.

Devil in the detail

Historian and long-time TCI resident Josiah Marvel has spent three decades scrutinising age-old texts detailing Columbus' voyage in libraries across the globe.

Image source, Olivia Savoure
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Josiah Marvel has been poring over texts detailing Columbus' voyage for decades

He has even created his own translations of Columbus' diary, accounting for mediaeval grammar and nautical phraseology.

Mr Marvel claims other modern translations have "too many flaws" to justify the long-held assertion that San Salvador, known as Watlings Island until 1926, was the landfall spot.

Among them is the failure to allow for magnetic variation - causing misreadings in Columbus' compasses - and the apparent impossibility of various moorings.

Additionally, Columbus' diary gives latitudes indicating the difference between the landfall island and Hispaniola to be 90 nautical miles.

"Almost the precise distance between Grand Turk and Hispaniola," Mr Marvel said.

To test the theory, he joined forces with two professional sea captains to sail an alternative route from Grand Turk to Ragged Island - Columbus' final stop in the Bahamas - via Mayaguana and the Inagua Islands.

'Fascinating puzzle'

The trio's first trip aboard catamaran Destiny II, which they say has speeds equivalent to Columbus' Santa Maria, set sail in November 2014.

Image source, Jon Nickson/
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The catamaran Destiny II was chosen as it is said to have similar speeds as the Santa Maria

Captaining the voyage was veteran Bahamian sailor Dave Calvert, who helped set a transatlantic crossing record in 2001.

"After becoming acquainted with Josiah's work, I do believe his theory is the most accurate," Mr Calvert told the BBC.

Expedition leader Tim Ainley said "clues" in Columbus' diary create a "fascinating puzzle which has enthralled historians and mariners for centuries".

Image source, Jon Nickson/
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During their voyage, the team has stopped at some of the uninhabited islands on the way, such as Hogsty Reef

"The text is vague because in those days they didn't have GPS, they didn't know how to calculate longitude and Columbus' fleet was completely lost - they thought they were heading for Japan," Mr Ainley explained.

Mr Ainley, who has 30 years' experience sailing the region's waters, continued: "Everybody agrees Columbus was a consummate mariner. His ships could not sail towards the wind so they would have been very careful about how they were going to sail back out of somewhere before they sailed in.

"Neither did they have anchor chains, so would have needed a clear sandy bottom to drop a rope-secured anchor in. This very much limits the anchorages.

Image source, Jon Nickson/
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The crew believes Hawks Nest Harbour in Grand Turk is the place Columbus described as large enough for "all the ships of Christendom"

"Also, magnetic variation meant Columbus thought he was heading west but in fact was heading further south than he realised. This ties in perfectly with Grand Turk which is the southernmost island of all the possible landfall places."

Perfect alignment

The last leg of the 2014 expedition was plagued by calm weather, prompting a follow-up trip last December.

After completing their route, the team is convinced it aligns precisely with the diary's clues.

This time the members were joined by US archaeologist Shaun Sullivan to search for evidence of a Lucayan settlement on Mayaguana, where the crew believe Columbus was when he reported being surrounded by Lucayans in canoes.

Image source, Jon Nickson/
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The team stopped at Abraham's Bay on Mayaguana island to search for evidence

"It's absolutely clear that Columbus landed somewhere in the south-eastern Bahamas or Turks and Caicos - but exactly where remains an open question," Dr Sullivan said, adding that resolving the issue would require "a long, scholarly process" and the accumulation of additional physical evidence.

The men are now gearing up for a third voyage this autumn re-enacting Columbus' commonly accepted route from San Salvador to Ragged Island - with the explorer's logbook in hand - in an effort to prove the distances and directions do not fit the text as accurately as a departure from Grand Turk.

"I want to set the history books straight and prove once and for all that we know he landed in Grand Turk.

"To our knowledge, no other historian has ever sailed the various alternative routes through the southern Bahamas and TCI," Mr Ainley added.

"Personally, I find it fascinating. It gives me goose bumps to think I am literally sailing in the wake of Columbus' fleet from all those years ago."

You can track the group's progress here.