Godspeed’s namesakes continue to sail Chesapeake’s waters
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While attending a workshop more than two decades ago at the College of William and Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point on the York River, I made the acquaintance of fellow sailors Betty Salley, who ran the VIMS chemistry lab, and her husband, George.
George was to skipper the trans-Atlantic voyage of a 17th century replica sailing vessel that would become a stand-in for the Godspeed, which with the Susan Constant and Discovery, were the three vessels that brought the Jamestown adventurers to the Chesapeake in April 1607.
This ship would replace another replica built in 1956 that was deemed too unsound for restoration.
Other than its cargo capacity of 40 tons, and a 68-foot hull (although its bowsprit spar would have made the overall length greater), not much is known about the original Godspeed, and the replica was being designed along the lines of a small merchant vessel of the time. Even so, the new replica’s design and construction would benefit from the nearly 30 year’s of knowledge obtained about these vessels since the first replica was built.
I eagerly accepted Salley’s invitation to the yard in nearby Tidewater Virginia, where the ship was being built.
When I arrived, the shipyard was strewn with spars and cordage. Hopping over yet unrigged topmasts and newly lashed ratlines, we arrived at the maintop. This basket-like crow’s nest structure is built into the rigging atop the heavy mainmast, where it joins the smaller topmast. From this vantage, sailors—having climbed the ladder of ratlines—would step out along the foot ropes and yardarms to set and furl the heavy square sails beneath them.
The smaller yard and topsail above them would be lowered to the maintop for furling from its more secure platform. Here, Salley disagreed with designer Duncan W. Stewart. “This is a fighting top,” he insisted, “You’d never find this on a merchant vessel!”
Salley, at one time planned to make a polar diagram for the Godspeed, the first, to my knowledge for a vessel of 17th century form. This after-the-fact performance evaluation is usually employed in modern racing sailboats. In periods of constant winds, the ship is put on every point of sail, upwind on both tacks, across the wind and downwind, and her speed is recorded. This is repeated under conditions of increasing wind strength, with full and shortened sail. The result is a series of concentric, heart– or kidney-shaped graphs describing the ship’s spectrum of performance under a variety of conditions.
Below decks, the new Godspeed was very different than her 17th century predecessor. Crew quarters occupied much of the ’tween decks, far more space for 11 men than would have been possible with the original 13 crew and 39 passengers. Salley had already packed her navigation area with 1980s electronic navigational instruments, radios and a proper galley.
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The original Godspeed and its two companion ships were chartered by the Virginia Company of London, from among the thousands of vessels in England’s merchant fleet at the end of the 16th century, a process that took about a year to effect.
The ship was skippered by Capt. Bartholemew Gosnold, an experienced mariner from Suffolk, England, who had returned from an earlier 1603 voyage to the New World. (See “Past is Prologue,” December 2005.)
The three ships departed Blackwall, a port area below the Isle of Dogs on London’s Thames River on Dec. 20, 1606.
Getting down the Thames is one thing, but winter is a hard time to escape the English Channel, with most winds roaring in from the sea, west and southwest, right in one’s face. The little fleet spent a frustrating—and provision-consuming—six weeks before clearing the Channel. They traversed the Bay of Biscay and turned southward toward the Canary Islands off Morocco, where they took on water, then let the prevailing trade winds sweep them across the Atlantic and into the Caribbean.
The fleet made landfall on the mountainous island of Dominica and worked up the Leeward Islands to the Virgin Islands, where they hunted iguanas, “tortoises, Pellicans Parrots and Fishes [on which] we daily feasted,” according to John Smith’s records.
“Gone from thence,” Smith later wrote, “in search of Virginia,” they sailed northward using frequent observations of the sun and stars to determine their latitude until they were as Smith wrote, “under the degrees of 37. 38. And 39.” There, it was supposed, one could sail west to find Virginia.
They sailed for three days beyond their reckoning (much beyond the expected distance), but still found no land.
The three ships came together and the captains—Christopher Newport, the fleet’s admiral aboard Susan Constant; Gosnold on Godspeed; and John Ratliffe of the Discovery—parlayed. Ratliffe was for packing it in and turning back to England, but the others prevailed and they ventured on.
They sailed directly into an unexpected storm so violent that the ships struck all sail and lay overnight “a-hull.” In this maneuver, the vessels’ high sterns (quarter and poop decks), having greater resistance to the gale, blew downwind, like massive wooden wind vanes, keeping the ships’ heads into wind and sea, with their bows throwing the waves aside.
There is no steerage or navigation under such conditions and the drifting ships could have easily been driven onto the offshore bars of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, their crews cast into the water and drowned.
Luck was with them, though, and lying before the gale, they were driven between the capes embracing the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. Orders containing instructions from the Virginia Company about governance for the settlement were opened. The council was to consist of Gosnold, Smith, Newport, Ratliffe and three others.
Gosnold died three months later, a great loss to the colony. Newport, who was responsible for Susan Constant, apparently convoyed Godspeed back to England in June 1607 under an appointed skipper. He sailed back to Virginia with supplies the following year.
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Godspeed’s namesake was shipped to England aboard a 609-foot containership in February 1985 and re-rigged at Harwich with a Roman coin put under the heel of her mainmast for good luck. Once rigged and put under sail again, it too encountered unfavorable winds, and had to be towed (the miracle of powered vessels) from port to port. Ten thousand visitors came aboard at Ipswich over the 1985 Easter holidays.
The ship subsequently lay in the Thames at St Katherine’s Docks. (Oddly, the Isle of Dogs, near Blackwall is today occupied by a housing development named Jamestown Harbour.)
George Salley and the modern adventurers aboard Godspeed left London April 30, 1985. She was towed out into the river by the Members of the Thames Watermen, an association that has maintained navigational standards on the estuary for the last 420 years. Without an engine, today’s Godspeed would have languished like its predecessor, awaiting fair winds to exit the English Channel. Modern expediency dictated that she again be towed; and this brought her to the Isle of Wight.
Cast loose on its recognizance, the ship still beat back and forth in the English Channel from England to the French Coast for a week until, on May 11, her logbook recorded: “had three Dungeness crabs each for supper, provided by an Isle of Wight fisherman. The gift of Neptune’s totem brought favorable winds with the ebbing tide.”
Like her predecessors, Godspeed followed the Spanish trade route to the Canaries. It was not an easy trip, plagued by weak winds, then a moderate gale (30-35 knots) with 15-foot swells from the south—the very direction they needed to go.
The ship was three weeks behind its intended schedule when Tenerife was sighted on June 6. Reprovisioning like her predecessor, Godspeed left six days later and five days more to the south, they found the elusive trade winds, now carrying her as much as 169 miles a day.
But the three weeks lost during the laborious departure, and their U.S. schedule created a strain, and the original plan to follow the chain of Caribbean Islands north and west, as had been done in the 17th century, was cancelled.
Hurricane season was also approaching. Godspeed could hear forecasts for these should they come across the Atlantic from Africa, but could do nothing to escape them that the wind would not permit. The crew was also antsy to get home; some had job or family commitments.
Salley, meanwhile, was under pressure to complete the voyage and protect his ship, which had cost more than a half million dollars to build. They put into Charlotte Amalie at St. Thomas—as had the original Godspeed 378 years earlier. Salley persuaded the supporting foundation officials to suspend the voyage in the Caribbean until the worst of the hurricane season was over. The ship was moved and lay at San Juan, Puerto Rico, something the first Godspeed did not do.
Salley did not captain the ship on its final leg, which began Sept. 18 under Jon Rolf Christiansen, a long-time Hampton, VA, resident and professional delivery captain.
(In addition to the two skippers, there were 22 crewmen involved in bringing Godspeed’s replica to Virginia. Jim Cox, one of the original trans-Atlantic crew was a major force in Virginia’s agricultural nonpoint pollution control program during the 1990s. Maurice Duke has written at least three books on the Chesapeake. John Broadwater is a well-known figure in U.S. nautical archaeology; he is director for the Civil War-era USS Monitor project under way at the Newport News, VA, Mariner’s Museum.)
The ship sailed much closer to the Atlantic Seaboard than did the 17th century voyage. Four days after departing, and off the coast of the Dominican Republic, Godspeed was threatened by a major hurricane. The storm veered north, well away from the ship but damaged the Jamestown Settlement living-history museum in Virginia!
The choice to stay well inshore was a compromise between the security of ports where help could be obtained, and the increasing risk of Diamond Shoals, known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic off North Carolina’s Outer Banks. In coastal storms, these banks are a lee shore upon which a vessel in difficulty inevitably drifts.
There, indeed, the recreated Godspeed encountered the most violent weather of her 8,000-mile voyage. Within sight of a coast but 15 miles distant, they were raked by gale force winds and pounded by 20-foot seas. There was no engine to save this ship any more than on the original Godspeed. The captain radioed for help from the U.S. Coast Guard, which used to do this kind of work routinely in the days before privatization.
Godspeed’s crew figured that they were within a half hour of disaster when they were taken under tow and hauled offshore. When the hawsers were later cast off, it was thought that Godspeed could make Cape Henry, but the gale, unabated, drove it again toward the shoals off Kitty Hawk.
The Coast Guard returned and took Godspeed north off the Virginia capes, where after holding the ship against the gale for 48 hours, the crew thought they could now sail, like their predecessor, between the capes and triumphantly up the James.
The wind, of course fell to a whisper and with the arrival ceremonies being readied upstream, and the prospect of waiting several days for wind—they accepted another tow up to Jamestown. This was not a trivial decision. Even in the 17th century, it would have taken at least a couple of days to work that far upriver in the absence of wind.
So, on Oct. 22, Godspeed passed the Jamestown Island and arrived at Jamestown Settlement living history museum a few miles upriver. The next year’s budget included a 100-horsepower diesel and hydraulic bow-thruster!
Since then, the Godspeed has been exhibited and sailed regularly around the Chesapeake, maintained by staff and volunteer crew. I’ve had the pleasure to be aboard her, seen her swivel-guns fired, and worked aloft and on deck handing sail as well as the lines of her spider web rig.
The replica Godspeed, Susan Constant and Discovery, under Captain Eric Speth, have seen two decades of service—quite a bit longer than most wooden ships survived in the 17th century.
Godspeed has aged and some time ago a campaign to replace it with a new and better replica was launched. By winter 2003, $965,600 was in hand to pay for its recreation. (Discovery will also be rebuilt,)
The budget for Godspeed is now $2.65 million, more than 14 times the cost of all three 1950s ships. The next Godspeed, her sparred length at 88 feet, is a longer and leaner vessel than either former replica.
Construction is well along in Rockport ME, at the shipyard of Taylor Allen, and its launch is scheduled for this spring.
Once rigged, a proposed sailing schedule will bring her to a number of ports along the U.S. coast, preparing for the 400th anniversary of her predecessors’ first arrival in the New World—all part of a quest to teach us about this Bay’s past, and about the stalwart people who colonized the Chesapeake.
Kent Mountford is an environmental historian and estuarine ecologist.
News from the Grave
December’s Past is Prologue, “Shipping a boat in two halves made a whole lot of sense in colonial times,” noted that Bartholemew Gosnold’s grave has almost certainly been found at Jamestown, and DNA extracted from his bones gave hope that his identity could be confirmed via similar samples taken from what was believed to be his sister’s grave in England. The woman found this summer, though, was too young to have been his sister and the DNA signatures also failed to match.
Sometimes, the greatest promise yields more bitter disappointment. Modern forensic science, however, has enabled a plausible reconstruction of the purported young Gosnold’s facial features.
The image is found on line at www.APVA.org.
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