Tall Ships Pre­pare for Jour­ney to the Na­tion’s Past

The Washington Post Sunday - - Metro Week -

bus’s Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, their trip was just as har­row­ing and its im­pact nearly as pro­found.

Crammed in­side their holds were 105 men and boys, colonists bet­ting they would find gold on the other side of the world. Two-thirds would be dead be­fore year’s end. But those who sur­vived and fol­lowed, most poor, would trans­form the Tide­wa­ter re­gion into the birth­place of a na­tion.

They set off from Eng­land in De­cem­ber 1606 on mer­chant ships built to haul cargo, not peo­ple. The big­gest, the Su­san Con­stant, was about the length of two mo­bile homes.

In those days, when transat­lantic cross­ings were like moon­shots, mariners were lucky to know ex­actly where they were, and their ves­sels were at the mercy of the weather. Pas­sen­gers had lit­tle op­por­tu­nity to go above deck for fresh air, as there was hardly enough room for the crew. The pas­sen­gers slept two to a bunk and, when not fight­ing, they passed the time singing, read­ing or pray­ing.

But at last the fleet reached Vir­ginia. The God­speed’s 10day re-cre­ation of the voy­age up the James River will al­low peo­ple to see what it must have been like.

The vol­un­teer crew has been prac­tic­ing the an­cient sail­ing arts for the ship’s of­fi­cial de­but. On an early spring day, 21 vol­un­teers met at Jamestown Set­tle­ment, the liv­ing his­tory mu­seum where the ships berth, to pi­lot the 72-ton ves­sel on a train­ing voy­age.

Capt. Eric Speth was at the helm. As mar­itime pro­gram man­ager for the Jamestown-York­town Foun­da­tion, a state agency, Speth re­searched 17th­cen­tury ships to com­pile spec­i­fi­ca­tions for the God­speed.

The God­speed was the 18-wheeler of the high seas in its day. Be­cause naval ar­chi­tects back then did not work from de­tailed writ­ten plans, no blue­prints of the ship have ever been found; two pre­vi­ous re­pro­duc­tions were built on ed­u­cated guesses.

The new God­speed, which took two years to build, was launched in March 2006. Half of its $2.65 mil­lion cost was fi­nanced by Vir­ginia tax­pay­ers, and the rest by grants from cor­po­ra­tions and foun­da­tions. The new Dis­cov­ery was built for $1.9 mil­lion, and the $2.14 mil­lion Su­san Con­stant re­pro­duc­tion has been sail­ing since 1991. After the an­niver­sary fes­tiv­i­ties, the three ships will re­turn to Jamestown Set­tle­ment.

Like the orig­i­nal God­speed, the 65-foot-long square-rig­ger has three masts and flies the 1607 Bri­tish flag bear­ing the English cross of St. Ge­orge and the Scot­tish cross of St. An­drew.

Un­like the orig­i­nal, the re­pro­duc­tion packs twin 115-horse­power diesel en­gines so it can chug with­out wind. No one re­lies on a sex­tant, ei­ther. The God­speed is equipped with elec­tronic nav­i­ga­tional de­vices.

But sail­ing a17th-cen­tury ship on the wind re­mains a la­bor-in­ten­sive af­fair. Dur­ing the train­ing run, a half-dozen crew mem­bers were needed just to set and ad­just the mizzen, a small sail aft.

Dressed in jeans and sneak­ers in­stead of the Ja­cobean cos­tumes they will wear Thurs­day, the crew mem­bers ranged from 15 to 73 and in­cluded a re­tired NASA sub­con­trac­tor, a home-schooled teenager from Mount Airy, Md., and a for­mer mem­ber of the Vir­ginia House of Del­e­gates. Some have sailed for years. Others just signed on.

“I can’t af­ford a boat, so I use this boat,” said Jim Eppes, 64, of Fred­er­icks­burg.

The wa­ter felt like win­ter but the air felt like spring as the ship eased out into the river. Trees along the bank threw out their first blos­soms.

Once un­der sail, the God­speed cruised at four knots, or 4.6 mph. “She ghosts well,” Speth said, mean­ing: “She sails re­ally well in a light wind like this.”

Kaia Dany­luk, 31, said she took an in­ter­est in square-rig­gers while study­ing his­tory at the Col­lege of Wil­liam and Mary. Now a crew mem­ber with the Jamestown-York­town Foun­da­tion, Dany­luk served as Speth’s first mate.

“It’s a chal­lenge to learn the vo­cab­u­lary and learn the dif­fer­ent rig­gings,” Dany­luk said, while re­mind­ing peo­ple to avoid rope burns. Vol­un­teers go through 32 hours of train­ing.

Get­ting up to the rig­gings is a thrill: It re­quires a safety har­ness — which can be at­tached only once the crew mem­ber has reached the round top, a wooden plat­form that al­lows sailors to work on the sails. The first 60 feet? You’re on your own.

“That’s the scari­est part, es­pe­cially the first time,” Eppes said. But, he added, it’s the most ex­cit­ing, too. “There’s some peo­ple who’ve fallen off two or three times, and they’ll still go back up there.”

There is no deny­ing the view from the round top is breath­tak­ing — and sure to goose adren­a­line lev­els with ev­ery rock of the boat. Earth­bound sounds and cares seem to fade away. The ropes creak. When the ship turns lazily be­low, leav­ing a lacy curl of foam in its wake, you have the sen­sa­tion of look­ing down on a toy while you’re rid­ing it.

But it’s what you can’t see that truly awes you: imag­in­ing sailors too young for whiskers climb­ing the rig­ging of the real ship 400 years ago — with­out safety har­nesses, through rough weather, heavy seas and pi­rates.

Har­ris said she of­ten imag­ines those men. As a woman, she also thinks of this: “I’m so glad it’s 2007, be­cause back then I wouldn’t have been al­lowed to do this.”

After four hours, the ship ar­rives home. “Wel­come to the New World!” some wag shouts from the pier.


Adam Frisch, above left, and Su­san Har­ris pre­pare to un­tie the sails of the God­speed dur­ing a prac­tice run on the James River. Below, Kaia Dany­luk, cen­ter, watches Martin Sec­ula as other crew mem­bers pre­pare for the voy­age of the God­speed to mark the 400th an­niver­sary of the first per­ma­nent English colony in the New World. At right, ropes play a crit­i­cal role on a ship.

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