The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

March 20, 2013

Dothan man builds model ships for Fla. celebration


Associated Press



DOTHAN, Ala. (AP) — Steve Harris' home is filled with models of ships.

Building models has been a hobby of the Dothan doctor since he was a kid. But Harris' attention to detail and extensive knowledge of early ships led to an opportunity to help Florida celebrate its history.

Harris was asked to build ship models of the vessels used by the explorer Juan Ponce de Leon as part of the Viva Florida 500 celebration marking the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon's expedition to Florida in 1513. The models are currently on display in St. Augustine, Fla.

"Ponce de Leon, even though he discovered Florida, never made any kind of land exploration into Florida - he had intended to," said Harris, a doctor with ENTcare. "His first expedition was entirely by ship . but a few years later he came back thinking he was going to establish a colony."

The native Indians of Florida, however, attacked. Ponce de Leon was wounded and later died in Havana. But, the explorer's discovery led the way for other Spanish explorers - Hernando de Soto, Tristán de Luna y Arellano and Pánfilo de Narváez.

And the ships that brought them all across an ocean - and Columbus before them - have fascinated Harris for years.

"These early Spanish and Portuguese ships were important to the archeologists because they represented the ability now of Europe to go everywhere in the world and come back," Harris said.

Ponce de Leon sailed under the Spanish flag with three ships - the Santa Maria de la Consolacion, the Santiago and the San Cristobal. The Santa Maria de la Consolacion and the Santiago were bigger caravels while the San Cristobal was believed to be a smaller ship known as a bergantin. Harris also built a fourth model to show the hull frame of the Santiago.

The ship models were built for the Florida Humanities Council and will become the permanent property of the Florida Public Archeology Network. Having been displayed at Flagler College, the models were recently moved to the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum for display, where they will remain through May before being moved to Miami for an exhibition.

Harris was recommended for the Ponce de Leon project by Roger Smith, head of the Florida Department of State Underwater Archeology Division. Harris had just completed a model project depicting a galleon that sank in Pensacola Bay in 1559 and known today as the Emanuel Point shipwreck.

Harris accepted the challenge of recreating Ponce de Leon's vessels and began researching in 2010. He turned to a variety of sources to get details of the ships' construction as accurate as possible. Harris made drawings with measurements and specifications for the caravel hulls and had the hulls constructed by V.N. Imports in Vietnam - a connection Harris made through a Dothan man whose uncle works for V.N. Imports.

While the smallest of the three ships, the bergantin San Cristobal was the most interesting model for Harris. A bergantin would have been a single deck ship used to explore closer to shore. It's a style of vessel that had been written about and that Harris had seen depicted in paintings and diagrams, but never as a model. Harris was able to get copies of actual plans of a 1616 bergantin that would have been accurate for the de Soto period, so Harris used them to model the Ponce de Leon bergantin.

"The bottom line about that little ship was here we're dealing with something that was important to each of these expeditions, but not only has no one built a model of it, but we don't really know exactly what it looked like," he said. "A lot of times it would be mistranslated by folks as something called a brigantine. A brigantine is a ship that was used in the American Revolution . We know from descriptions about what they were like, but we didn't know exactly."