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Friday, Aug 01, 2014
Travel and Beaches

St. Augustine celebrating de Leon’s ‘La Florida’

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TAMPA -

Thirty degrees, eight minutes was the last location recorded by the navigator aboard the Espiritu de Santiago before Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon landed on Florida’s east coast 500 years ago this week.

Those coordinates put the caravel somewhere between what is now St. Augustine and Pontre Verde at noon on April 2, 1513. The next day, the intrepid conquistador set foot on the sandy beach and named the place La Florida.

St. Augustine is marking the seminal moment in New World history with a shoreline ceremony commemorating the landing and other events taking place on Saturday and Sunday.

But conspicuous by its absence will be the El Espiritu, the replica of the Espiritu de Santiago. The renovated shrimp boat that plied the waters of the Gulf of Mexico out of Tampa during the first part of its 31-year-old former life is still in the shop.

The vessel, 72 feet of oak and cypress, has been getting a historical facelift over the past two years by a group of volunteers in St. Augustine hoping to get it done by the 500th anniversary of the historic landing by de Leon.

But it won’t be on hand for the festivities this week, said St. Augustine resident Dan Holiday, the 77-year-old erstwhile Caribbean pirate who has sailed the subtropics in a small sailboat during his life. He now heads the replication effort by directing a cadre of volunteer ship fitters.

“We are coming down the home stretch,” he said. “We just moved it from where we had it over the past year or so to where we want to launch it.”

Inspections — “to make sure we’re watertight” — still are needed, along with a mizzenmast that can’t be put in until the vessel is in the water, he said. All that — and a forecast for possible rough weather — means the Espiritu won’t take part in the re-enactment.

“The weather forecast for this time of year is horrible,” he said. “Over the past six years, there was not one year we could have done it with the weather. We were a bit naive thinking we could do it. Even the shrimp boats over here are in port.”

The El Espiritu is the old Apple Jack, a shrimp boat that sailed out of Tampa to fish in the Gulf. It had the same basic hull design as de Leon’s caravel, Holiday said, and volunteers acquired the vessel just before the former owner was about to scrap it.

“It was such a good design, it is used for all kinds of things,” he said. “We were lucky to find this boat. It was in fairly decent shape for an old boat.”

“It’s a replica,” he said, “and a damn good one, quite frankly.”

The replication project began two years ago, he said. Though it won’t be ready for the festivities next week, it will become part of St. Augustine’s seascape, “like the Gasparilla ship in Tampa,” Holiday said, and will play a big part in St. Augustine’s 450th anniversary in 2015.

The two-day St. Augustine festival marking the quincentennial occasion begins at 10 a.m. on April 6 with a landing ceremony just east of the Plaza de la Constitución. A ceremonial wreath will be placed on the statue of de Leon and speeches will be given by St. Augustine Mayor Joseph Boles and Santervás Mayor Santiago Baeza Benavides.

Santervás, Spain, is Ponce de León’s birthplace.

The event continues at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine where a commemorative Mass will be held at 11 a.m. The Mass will feature the blessing of the Baptismal Font, which is a hand-masoned replica of the 15th Century font used to baptize Ponce de León in Santervás.


kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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