Austin Hall, a native of the North Carolina mountains, has wrangled horses, guided whitewater rafting trips and led backcountry hikes in Gallatin National Forest. He is a devoted outdoorsman and self-confessed adventure seeker. But he hasn’t spent much time on the Chesapeake Bay—or sailing in general.
“I sailed on a small boat in the Bay for two days in my teens. That’s it,” Hall said.
He’s about to balance the ledger.
On May 12, twelve men and women set out on an open wooden boat from Jamestown, VA, aiming to trace the route of the Bay’s most famous explorer, Capt. John Smith. Hall is among the modern voyagers.
Together, they will spend 121 days on the Chesapeake, marking the 400th anniversary of Smith’s historic journeys. Smith’s travel journal provides the first detailed accounts of the region’s ecology and native people and led to the creation of his remarkably accurate map, which guided European settlers for nearly a century.
Sponsored by the Sultana Projects and a host of other partners, the 2007 expedition is one of the most visible in a flurry of events and projects throughout the Bay region that commemorate Smith’s journeys.
Hall learned about the expedition while browsing web sites last year.
“When I read about the size of the boat, that it would be all human-powered, and make such an amazing trip, I knew I had to do it,” Hall said.
The shallop, akin to an oversize rowboat, is a reconstruction of the vessel Smith used to explore the Bay’s shallow waters and make frequent stops along the way. Just less than 28 feet long and 8 feet across, it holds up to 15 people but provides no shelter other than what the crew might create with tarps.
There is one mast, one sail and plenty of oars. By the journey’s end on Sept. 8, the crew will have sailed or rowed approximately 1,500 miles between Jamestown, VA, and Port Deposit, MD, with 23 ports of call in between.
Their route is actually a combination of Smith’s two 1608 voyages, and they will not mimic Smith’s every stop or make them in exactly the same order.
“The point of the voyage is not to make a perfectly accurate recreation of his trip,” said shallop Capt. Ian Bystrom. “We’re trying to do it in a similar way to get people interested, but the mission is to bring attention to the importance of his voyage and the state of the Bay at the time.”
Smith explored the Bay from his base in colonial Jamestown, where settlers faced an ongoing struggle with starvation, illness, conflict with the native people and infighting.
Across four centuries, it remains clear that Smith’s personality loomed large at Jamestown. On the trans-Atlantic voyage, he is thought to have participated in a failed mutiny and arrived at Virginia in handcuffs. To everyone’s surprise, a letter from the colony’s sponsor appointed Smith to the colony’s governing council.
A year later, Smith was elected president of the council. His leadership remained a source of conflict, but Smith claimed credit for the colony’s survival. He promoted—and many say inflated—this claim from the time he returned to England in 1609 until his death in 1631.
“When Smith came over here, he was the right person for the job, but his personality rubbed everyone the wrong way,” Bystrom said. “He was a leader who led through his actions, and in that way he was incredible. He brought Jamestown through a tough time, but he was a really stubborn guy and hard to work with.”
Bystrom plans to carry Smith’s work ethic into the modern-day voyage, but hopes to do a better job with human relations.
For the 1608 expeditions, Smith selected crew members who could make the unit both safe and self-sufficient. They included gentlemen with firearms, a physician, carpenter, a tailor, blacksmith, a fisherman, a fish merchant and soldiers.
Bystrom’s needs are different. A licensed captain with years of sailing experience from Maine to the Bahamas, Bystrom came to the John Smith project after two years as chief mate on the educational schooner Sultana, based in Chestertown, MD. Bystrom sought sailing experience in his crew, but he also wanted educators and people who were invigorated by an outdoor challenge.
“We needed incredibly enthusiastic people with a love of hardcore outdoor experience,” Bystrom said.
It took five months to select the crew, which includes seven men and five women in their 20s and 30s.
“Some come with a sailing background and some with a rowing background, but others have biked across the United States or hiked the entire Appalachian Trail,” Bystrom said.
Most met for the first time in April, when they began training in Chestertown and Virginia Beach, with a deluge of speakers and field trips on history, ecology and Native Americans.
“It was a little uneasy at first, coming to a group of people you will be doing something so hard with,” Hall said. “But after the first week, it was like going back to a communal college lifestyle when your fellow students are your family. We lived together in an old CCC cabin and had all of our meals together.”
Those close quarters shrank further when they boarded the shallop, where there is little privacy or creature comforts. A few nights in urban areas will land the crew in a hotel. But most nights will be spent camping or on board the shallop.
“We need to average about 15 miles a day, but basically my goal is to move the boat as fast as we can for as long as we can,” Bystrom said. “If we get a great breeze, we’ll see how far we can get.”
This could mean 48 continuous hours on the water, or longer.
“Sleeping will be difficult,” Bystrom said. “I think we can find ways to stretch out a bit, but eight hours of sleep? That’s never going to happen.”
The crew will appear in full period costume for special events, but travel mostly in modern clothes that make sense for a hot Chesapeake summer. Bystrom said that striving for historical accuracy might actually make them less effective ambassadors.
“We can’t put the crew in wool clothes, feed them dried oatmeal every day, and then expect them to have enough energy to engage the public,” he said.
They will also make use of technology to share their experiences. Photos and journal entries will be posted on website of the Captain John Smith 400 Project. Crew member and captain’s brother Andrew Bystrom will serve as lead scribe, drawing on his experience as both science teacher and journalist. But all crew members are encouraged to participate.
“The importance of writing things down has been stressed to us,” Hall said. “After all, if John Smith hadn’t made record of his trip, this one wouldn’t be happening. The importance of keeping a journal is pretty clear.”
Their journals may be a reminder that adventure, at least on a personal scale, still exists—even in an estuary that has been so voraciously explored, populated and developed.
Hall is not subject to the culture shock that Smith and his crew experienced, but he still marvels at the difference in flora and fauna, just seven hours away from his mountain home. And he, too, is hard-pressed to predict what the summer’s greatest challenge might be.
“That’s what so intriguing about the adventure,” Hall said. “We just don’t know.”
Events & Information
- Captain John Smith 400 Project - Official site of the 2007 expedition with an interactive map showing dates and locations of the shallop landings, background on Smith’s voyages, photos and journal entries from the crew, and curriculum resources for teachers.
- Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network - A roundup of Smith-related information and anniversary events taking place at outdoor sites, museums and historic settings across the region.
- Captain John Smith National Historic Water Trail - The John Smith Water Trail, authorized by President Bush in December 2006, will commemorate Smith’s route and create new opportunities for education, recreation, heritage tourism and environmental stewardship on the Bay. Watch the Gateways website above for updates.
There are many books about John Smith and the people and environment he encountered in the Bay region. More recent volumes include:
“Jamestown: The Buried Truth” by William M. Kelso (University of Virginia Press, 2006).
“John Smith’s Chesapeake Voyages, 1607-1608” by Helen C. Rountree, Wayne D. Clark and Kent Mountford (University of Virginia Press, 2007).
“Love and Hate in Jamestown” by David A. Price (Alfred A. Knopf and Vintage Books, 2003).
“Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown” by Helen C. Rountree (University of Virginia Press, 2005).
The 2007 Susquehanna Sojourn, led by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, offers an opportunity to paddle along the John Smith shallop as it visits Port Deposit, Perryville and Havre de Grace, MD, on July 21 and 22. Pre-registration is required. For information and registration, call 717-737-8622 or visit www.acb-online.org.