The main mast of ARA Presidente Sarmiento pricks the skyline and the ship can be seen long before reaching portside. She’s impressive and her timeless form and canvas sails provide a neat contrast to the high-rise blocks of Puerto Madero. A bridge connects the museum to dry land, allowing the public to board for only $2.
The ship is named after Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, the seventh President of Argentina, and was originally built for the Argentine Naval Academy by the Laird brothers of Birkenhead, England. Launched in 1887, she was eventually retired as a seagoing vessel in 1938 after numerous training cruises and six circumnavigations of the globe. However, the Sarmiento continued to serve as a stationary training ship until 1961.
If you’re taller than five foot three you’ll most likely knock your head on a low-lying steel rafter or doorframe but this only adds to the experience. The interior of the ship has been preserved brilliantly, especially the officer’s cabins, which offer a genuine insight into life at sea. Even for the higher ranks space was a commodity not to be spared with each piece of furniture either built-in or designed to fold away. Glass panels prevent close inspection but original artifacts like maps, compasses, and shaving equipment are on display. In contrast, hooks can be seen on most beams, exposing the less glamorous sleeping arrangements of the deckhands who would nap in suspended hammocks, packed tight like canned sardines.
The room in the depths of the ship’s bow is perhaps the least inspiring on account of the mismatched military garb displayed in glass cabinets and Argentine flags in various states of decay. It’s spacious, in juxtaposition to the rest of the ship, and feels misused but there is, however, an ominously poised torpedo primed for the former scuttle entrance. Pictures of former captains adorn the walls, each character sporting a Bismarkian moustache of eccentric proportions.
A makeshift cinema in another of the lower rooms plays an outdated, grainy film every few minutes showing clips of various political figures visiting the ship laid over with almost inaudible commentary. A silent montage of photos depicting the Sarmiento throughout the ages also gets some screen time but it’s fairly dull so probably not worth sitting down to watch unless you have weary sea legs.
Up top the deck is what you might expect. Redundant lifeboats hang at various points and gun ports, modelling surprisingly modern-looking canons, point out towards Puerto Madero one side and Plaza de Mayo the other. You can stand at the helm overlooking the lower deck, hands on the ship’s wheel pretending to be skipper for a few minutes if you wish but the illusion might be spoilt by the throngs of trigger-happy tourists shooting endless photos. The ship’s steering was controlled by a three-wheel chain drive allowing up to six helmsmen to control the rudder. However, this was not always necessary as an electric servo-drive engine was installed later on.
The bowels of the boat showcase the steering mechanism; a mass of cogs, shafts and pipes. You might not expect to see such machinery before boarding given the Sarmiento’s antique façade but a theme of contrasts flows throughout vessel’s display, such as the varying living conditions and updated operating systems.
It doesn’t take long to make your way around the museum, but the low ceilings, different levels, and awkward stairs slow the pace. It is authentic though, and you get a real sense of how the ship functioned. The historical relevance of the boat is a little hazy due to tedious presentation but the real draw is simply being able to view life from a mariner’s point of view.
ARA President Sarmiento, Av Alicia Moreau de Justo 980. Visiting hours on the ship are 10am-7pm, Mon-Sun; closed during rain. On the 2nd and 4th Sunday of every month a mass is held on the ship. For more information, visit the website.