Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, June 24, 2020: ‘You are the most beautiful ship in the world’
Here we see the Italian Navy’s historic nave scuola (training ship) Amerigo Vespucci (A5312) during the vessel’s 1992 at-sea campaign, specifically the Colombiadi, a Tall Ship regatta organized on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. Pushing almost a full century in service, the Vespucci is most assuredly “old school.”
Designed in 1925 for the old Royal Italian Navy, the Regia Marina, Vespucci was to replace the aging Flavio Gioia-class incrociatore (cruiser) of the same name. The former Amerigo Vespucci, a 2,750-ton iron-hulled steam barque carried 13 guns and was laid down in 1879, the first such Italian warship named in honor of the 15th Century explorer who figured out the American continent was, in fact, not Asia.
The new Vespucci was designed by Francesco Rotundi as was her near-sister, the slightly larger Cristoforo Colombo, taking pains to model them on the old Sicilian (Sardinian) Navy’s 84-gun ship-of-the-line Re Galantuomo (Monarca), a key vessel in 19th Century Italian naval lore. If Rotundi’s name rings a bell, he was the naval engineer who drew up the plans for the interwar modernization of the WWI-era Caio Duilio– and Conte di Cavour-class dreadnoughts as well as the construction of the new Littorio/Vittorio Veneto-class fast battleships.
Some 329-feet in length over the bowsprit, Vespucci’s main mast towered 177 feet into the air and, when fully rigged, she carried more than 20 holona canvas sails. While she had two white-painted “gun decks” fitted with more than 200 portholes rather than cannon ports, she was completed only with saluting guns and a few vintage black powder display pieces. She carries a life-size figurehead of the ship’s namesake explorer in golden bronze, has teak decks, and ornate embellishments from her bow to stern, some covered in gold foil.
In a nod to 20th Century shipbuilding techniques, her hull, masts, and yards were steel (although her tops are wood) and the vessel was designed from the start with an “iron topsail,” an auxiliary diesel-electric plant of two 6-cylinder FIAT Q 426 engines coupled with a pair of dynamos to supply electricity for her radios, navaids, loudspeakers, sounding gear and lights. The electricity in turn could also be used to spin up a pair of Marelii motors on a single shaft– good for up to 10.5 knots. She carried enough diesel to cruise 5,400 nm at a breathtaking 6-knots without breaking out the first sheet.
Built at the Royal Shipyard of Castellammare di Stabia, Vespucci was commissioned as part of the Divisione Navi Scolastiche (School Ships Division) on 6 June 1931, joining her sister Cristoforo Colombo with the task of training Italian naval cadets.
Vespucci sailed on her first annual training cruise, to Northern Europe, late in the summer of 1931. As noted by the Italian Navy, “from 1931 to 2006 the Amerigo Vespucci performed 79 training cruises for the 1st Class Cadets of the Naval Academy: 42 in North Europe, 23 in the Mediterranean, 4 in the Eastern Atlantic, 7 in North America and 1 in South America within the only circumnavigation of the globe carried out between May 2002 and September 2003.”
While not a warship in the traditional sense of the term, Vespucci and her sister trained the officers that manned Italy’s battleships and cruisers in a series of surface actions throughout the first few years of WWII, as well as many of the young gentlemen of the Italian submarine force and Decima MAS who wreaked havoc on the British fleet during the conflict.
As for the tall ships, however, they spent the war on training missions close to shore at Pula and, gratefully, survived to come through the other side.
Once the war was over, and the Allies began carving away the most choice cuts of the old Italian fleet in 1949, Cristoforo Colombo was awarded to the Soviets along with the old battleship Giulio Cesare, the cruiser Duc’a De Aosta, two destroyers, three torpedo boats, two submarines, and assorted auxiliaries for a token fee. Colombo was renamed Dunaj (Danube) and worked with the Red Navy’s Black Sea Fleet for a decade.
Falling into disrepair in the 1960s after Colombo was handed over to the merchant marine school at Odessa, the graceful Italian tall ship was slowly dismantled by 1971.
Meanwhile, Vespucci returned to service with the reformed (i.e. non “Royal”) Italian Marina Militare. She resumed her overseas training cruises in 1951, equipped this time with a modest armament of four American-supplied 3″/50 guns and a single 20mm cannon to provide the ship’s cadets with some underway ordnance training.
Playing a role in the XVII Olympiad, held in Rome that year, she transported the Olympic flame from Greece to Italy, an important healing moment between the two countries a generation after WWII. Vespucci, placed at the disposal of the Games’ Organizing Committee, embarked the flame on 13 August at Zeas with the torch carried aboard by an Italian naval cadet in a whaleboat and, sailing across the Ionian Sea, arrived at Syracuse on the 18th.
According to legend, while sailing in the Med in the 1960s, the 80,000-ton Forrestal-class supercarrier USS Independence, on a deployment with the Sixth Fleet duty in support of President John F. Kennedy’s firm stand on the newly-established Berlin Wall, came across a strange tall ship at sea. The carrier flashed the vessel, Vespucci, with the light signal asking, “Who are you?” The answer, “Training ship Amerigo Vespucci, Italian Navy,” came back. Independence was said to have replied, “You are the most beautiful ship in the world.”
In 1964, she was extensively refitted at La Spezia, given new engines, generators, radars, rigging, and refurbished below deck areas.
Afterward, she became increasingly visible overseas, taking part in international tall ship events in 1976, 1981, 1985, and 1986, crossing the Atlantic at least twice in that period.
Today, Vespucci is only armed with two 6-pounder saluting guns in pivot mountings on the deck, forward of the mainmast, although her small arms locker is interesting and recent pictures show that she still carries at least two-dozen WWII-era Beretta MAB38/42 submachine guns, used by her ship’s watch.
Further, she is still hard at work at age 89, very much a part of the Italian fleet.
4,146 t (4,081 long tons) full load (DWT)
3,410 t (3,360 long tons) gross tonnage
1,203 t (1,184 long tons) net tonnage
329 ft 9 in LOA including bowsprit
270 ft overall, hull
229.5 ft pp
Beam: 51. ft
Height: 177.2 ft
Draught: 22 ft
Sail Rig: (original) 21 sails, 22,600 sq. ft. of canvas
(current) Up to 26 sails, 28,360 sq. ft.
Propulsion: Two 6-cylinder FIAT Q 426 engines, Two Marelli motors, 1,900 shp 1 shaft (1931),
Two 4-stroke, 8-cylinder FIAT B 308 ESS diesel engines (1964)
Engineering (since 2016)
2 × diesel engine generator MTU 12VM33F2, 1,824 bhp each
2 × diesel engines generator MTU 8VM23F2, 1,020 bhp each
1 × Electrical Propulsion Engine (MEP) ex Ansaldo Sistemi Industriali (NIDEC ASI) CR1000Y8 (1,010 bhp)
Sails, 10 to 15 knots
Engines, 10 knots
Sensors: 2 × navigation radars GEM Elettronica AN/SPN-753(V)5, current
Complement: Up to 470
64 NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers)
130 Naval Academy Cadets and Support Staff (when embarked)
4 x 3″/50cal singles
1 x 20mm cannon
Small arms, saluting guns
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