John Smith's two 1608 voyages of exploration of the Chesapeake are in the news this year as a shallop with a crew of a dozen intrepid men and women-on a single voyage-traces many of the courses sailed by Smith 399 years ago.

But what of this shallop? It is certainly a plausible craft of the period and would have elicited little comment were it to reappear in 17th century waters around England or Western Europe. But is this an accurate representation of Smith's small barge?

To put it bluntly, though, we have no idea what the Jamestown expedition's original shallop looked like. And this is not for lack of many people trying.

This is not a trivial matter because the nature of the vessel and its performance sailing around the Chesapeake helps us to understand the evolution of sailing craft in this huge estuary. These small craft were the backbone and lifeline of this economy from the earliest colonial period until well into first decades of the 20th century.

A little more than a quarter century ago, Burt Kummerow, then director at Historic St. Mary's City in Maryland, thought the time was right to start thinking about a recreation of the discovery barge Smith used on his voyage. After all, Chesapeake observers were soon to celebrate the 375th anniversary of that epic voyage.

He and Ralph Eshelman, then director at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, MD, assembled a group. They corralled a shipwright at the museum, George Surgent, and Al Lavish a retired professional, along with a bevy of very expert hangers-on-including myself-and set about the task without grant support or wide regional acknowledgment.

Lavish and Surgent did the lion's share of the research into what literature was available. The clues found were many, but pointed in several directions. There are numerous illustrations of small craft of that time, but none from the Chesapeake. The two colleagues went over much of the same ground and worked with the same basic assumptions that later researchers made about Smith's boat:

  • The boat was brought over pre-built from England, likely aboard the Susan Constant, in some disassembled state.
  • It appears to have been put together (ignoring an error in date in the account by first landing chronicler George Percy) in one or two days.
  • It had a cargo capacity of "three tuns." This was a volume measure for the casks it could carry, and had nothing to do with the weight of the boat.
  • The barge had space-albeit cramped-for Smith and 14 men plus their gear at the start of the first voyage; and had at least 17 people aboard at one time on the second voyage.
  • Smith's crew described a mast and sail (both singular), but early in the first voyage they lost a foremast, implying that there were a main mast and a foremast.

There is precedent for this. William A. Baker in his 1966 book, "Sloops and Shallops," shows examples from 1430 to the 17th century in which a small, likely portable, foremast is rigged with a small square sail. In one of Baker's illustrations, this sail is struck while going to windward, and it would not be surprising if Smith had one of these, He would have carried it with the larger sail furled while running off before the squall that carried away his foremast. This is more likely than losing a mainmast well-supported with permanent stays. In the 19th century, this practice was echoed in small "stickup" foresails used on Chesapeake working watercraft-the pickup trucks of their time.

Smith's map published some years after the voyage does have a tiny illustration, among fanciful fishes and ships of the period. The map has a little engraver's sketch-of a boat lying far up Chesapeake Bay near what is today Poole's Island-that serves as the logo for "Past is Prologue." The boat is rounded at both ends, and is shown with a single mast supported by two lines called shrouds on each side, and with a single yard or spar to support a sail that is not shown.

The spar is an conundrum, because if this is indeed Smith's barge, it could represent, as it is shown, several possible sailing rigs: a square sail, a lug sail, a sprit sail or a gunter rig. All but the square sail could carry a jib forward, but that is not hinted at. The issue of a potential, portable second mast, which could easily have been used when conditions warranted, remains unresolved. Such grasping at straws!

John Swain, the Chestertown, MD, shipwright working for the John Smith 400 Project, built a full-bodied boat, symmetrically rounded at both ends, with a single mast spritsail and jib rig. The boat was built in two separately floatable halves-bow and stern-which could be launched and rowed ashore for final assembly.

There is historical precedent for this. Capt. Bartholemew Gosnold used a boat like this in his voyage farther northeast near what he named Cape Cod. Gosnold was subsequently one of the movers and shapers of the 1607 Jamestown venture and aside from contributing his experience with a two-part shallop, would have had a good and stabilizing influence on the fledgling settlement. Unfortunately, he died at Jamestown about three months into the project, to everyone's great sadness.

Twenty-five years ago, Surgent and the rest of us drew on records of Basque fishermen who, since the 1500s, have made whaling camps on Canada's Newfoundland Peninsula. Archaeologists at Red Bay, Labrador, have found knocked-down boats that were assembled on arrival for fishing the then fabulously rich Grand Banks off the peninsula.

Surgent, acting as naval architect and draftsman, said he started without any preconceptions and simply "designed a boat that...would do the job consistent with the historical record." He and Lavish firmly believed they were close to the original. It was not a shallop, but more like a large version of the dories Grand Banks fishermen would use into the 20th century. He designed a two-masted rig instead of a single, square sail.

The single, square mainsail was used in the 1990s aboard Silver Chalice, the shallop accompanying the larger ship Elizabeth II, which represents a vessel that served the Roanoke, NC, colonists of the 1580s. The crew managed this rig well, but did not like its handling characteristics and the Chalice later adopted a two-masted rig like the one Surgent and Lavish had proposed. The ship visits maritime events around the mid-Atlantic, and I can report, from personal experience, that it is very pleasing to sail.

I did a pencil sketch of Surgent's boat that Kummerow offered a local artist, Peter Copeland, as the basis for a series of paintings. Neither my sketch nor the paintings got much press at the time and it was never built for lack of funds. Leroy "Pepper" Langley made a detailed scale model that is on display at the Calvert Marine Museum.

As John Smith mania built over the last several years three versions of the discovery barge were built, and one, the Explorer at the Marine Museum in Deltaville, VA, was based-to their delight-using Surgent and Lavish's plans. The naval architect who oversaw the final design made only minor alterations.

For the uninitiated, it's easiest to describe it as a dory hull, with a flat (well, slightly rockered) bottom with hard chines, or corners where the sides join the bottom. There is a sharp bow and at the stern a squared-off transom on which the rudder is hung outboard. Deltaville departed from Surgent's proposed two-masted sprit-sail rig in favor of Silver Chalice's single square sail, which is carried on a single mast stepped through a thwart or rowing-seat just ahead of the midships.

Ian Bystrom, captain of the John Smith shallop, said it usually takes six people rowing to keep the boat moving. Plying six oars, his shallop version makes two knots steady progress. He has 12 stalwarts aboard.

This June, there were 11 aboard Explorer-eight of us who were very inexperienced at working together plying oars. We frequently crossed our 14-foot oars, failed to heed timing of the stroke oars and, three times I lost control of my sweep and it trailed in the water.

Skipper Steve Smith (also called Kaptain Krunch) said that trailing oars like this would have earlier snapped the thole pins off the rails like matches. Thole pins are the fulcrums against which the rower pulls; the grip of the oar being pulled toward the bow by oarsmen facing aft and the submerged blades sweeping toward the stern to propel the boat forward. The new, strong locks put in to support this action are solid and secured with iron drifts into the wood. The oars may bend noticeably but do not break. Each sweep is weighted at the pulling end with a lead casting inside to counterbalance the long looms (the part of an oar between the handle and the blade).

We pulled a couple of miles during our day with Explorer. At first, our sloppy rowing managed 3-3.2 knots, but once we got our act together (with historian Ed Haile at the helm), we reeled off 3.7-and for a time, 4.0 knots-the equivalent of a brisk walk at 4.6 miles per hour.

This was the first time Explorer had set her large square mainsail. It has no reefs to reduce sail area in heavy winds. This is historically accurate, but it would have been a hassle to change to the smaller sail they had ready and lose all that time in a fair breeze. Seventeenth century square riggers often had a bonnet-an additional horizontal panel of sail-that could be laced to the main, giving it some flexibility.

With a little wind, Explorer moves along under sail at 3.2-3.4 knots (near 4 mph), her hull being quite easily driven, as we'd found under oars. While at the tiller, I brought the ship round, attempting to go to windward, but it would not answer the helm and slid sideways more and more.

Off the wind it is nicely maneuverable, and I had no trouble making sharp turns negotiating the channel to Deltaville inside Stingray Point. Smith then negotiated the hairpin turns up a narrow channel on the faintest breath of air to the Marine Museum without the need to ply a single oar.

Still, after seeing the John Smith shallop, and sailing both the (Maryland) Dove's boat, Parrot, and Silver Chalice, I think that Explorer needs to have leeboards added. Leeboards are big boards that are hung off the lee side of a boat-the side away from the wind-to keep it from sliding sideways when the wind is blowing from forward of amidships and the boat was trying to sail somewhere in the direction from which the wind blew.

Leeboards are an old invention, possibly from the Netherlands, where shallow waters abound, although there are some who state that they date from pre-history. Baker's book contains a 17th century illustration of a sailing vessel resting ashore with leeboards, which he suggests were common on boats until the 1700s, although there is no evidence for their use in the Chesapeake.

Leeboards, as evidenced by their modern reconstructions, are extremely low tech, simple to rig and make a significant difference sailing to weather.

Bystrom said that, even with its big leeboards, the John Smith shallop is a poor performer to windward in light airs, but when it blows 15-18 knots (about 20 mph) it powers its way through the chop and makes real progress, although the crew has to keep bailing the water that is continually thrown over the boat's bluff bows and into the bilges.

The Explorer's oars under sail are carried fore and aft on either side of the mast and form a rough decking on which its crew can walk. It is very cumbersome to get the oars outboard quickly when there is a need to row, though. When it's likely oars will be needed quickly, they are carried resting on the boat's gunwales and stretching from one side to the other, the butts against the opposite bulwark and the blades jutting out 3-4 feet port and starboard. They are then easy to get in action. The John Smith shallop follows the same practice.

While Smith seems to run the boat with long oar strokes, Bystrom, at least in a chop, argues for short strokes that keep the boat moving where waves that close together would almost stop it between strokes. His crew pauses slightly before each stroke, then they all "jerk" the oars simultaneously and recover for the next stroke.

It's interesting that one of the most common plankton organisms, the shrimplike copepod, swims the same way, in rapid bursts. Scientist Rudy Strickler determined years ago that this was the most efficient way for them to conserve their energy.

As in all these experiences, the crews and vessels are works in progress and living experiments about handling vessels that might have been work-a-day 400 years ago.

Most of the Explorer's crew returned to Deltaville that night-just inside Stingray Point, where we barbecued a cownose ray, which is likely the fish that almost fatally stung Smith when he was there 399 years ago.