Tall Ships Prepare for Journey to the Nation’s Past
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.