There is only the sound of the six wooden oars slapping the water and the creak of wood in the oarlocks. Some of the crew blow out breath as they pull back on the 25-pound, 16-foot oars, others grimace quietly. I watch the bank and can see that we are barely moving, even as the crew strains. A stiff breeze is blowing against them as they attempt to enter Chesapeake Bay.
"OK crew, we need to row as hard as we can for 15-minute intervals," directed their leader, Capt. Ian Bystrom. "Right now we're making waves. That's a good sign."
The crew had no warm-up time this morning and that is always tough. They camped last night in a protected cove outside Rock Hall on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
"John Mann, get ready to drop the parking hook (anchor)!" Bystrom yelled, and the rowers hustle to switch places with the other six crew members. In the meantime, the bow gets blown off course. It will break their hearts if they have to get towed out to the Bay.
Capt. John Smith was never towed.
These 12 modern-day adventurers are retracing the historic 1608 voyages of John Smith. Four hundred years ago, Smith set off with his crew from Jamestown to explore and map the Chesapeake and its tributaries and look for a water route to the west.
He and his crew rowed and sailed a shallop-an open boat that arrived in the New World in pieces, transported in the hold of the Susan Constant. In commemoration of the anniversary, the non-profit Sultana Project in Chestertown, MD, built a 28-foot reproduction using many tools and shipbuilding methods of the 17th century.
The handpicked crew of 11 young sailors and their captain began their journey May 12, and will end it Sept. 8. They will have traveled 1,500 miles to nearly every corner of the estuary and its rivers. Like Smith, they follow most rivers to their fall line-the rocky area where the Coastal Plain bumps against the Piedmont, making travel farther upstream difficult.
In their 121-day voyage, the sailors are also blazing the path for the United States' first National Historic Water Trail. Established in 2006 by an act of Congress, the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Water Trail will ultimately allow modern day sailors to explore 2,500 miles of waterways in the Bay area while learning about Native American history, early English settlement and the Chesapeake's abundant resources.
As they relive the adventure, the crew are not only introducing millions to this moment in our nation's history but also raising awareness of the Bay. This morning, though, it is the difficulty of Smith's journey which is most palpable.
"We're so close!" Bystrom encouraged the rowers. "She's starting to come around now. Here we go!"
The crew worked fluidly to prepare the sail. Quickly, the painful rowing is replaced by peaceful sailing. A bald eagle soars the morning skies and the crew moves around to find their comfortable spots. They settle into reading, napping, snacking, singing a few lines from a classic rock song, chatting or just thinking.
"I think about Smith a lot out here," said crew member Austin Hall. "About pulling up to shore and how unbelievably interesting it would be to see what he saw. At Mount Vernon, we saw 300-year-old trees that just dwarfed the trees on the Bay now. One of the reasons why the Bay was so healthy was because it had this incredible green sponge around it.
"I think about the oysters that were once here too," Hall continued. "An individual oyster could filter 50 gallons of water in a day. All together, in three days, they could filter 18 trillion gallons of water. The oyster reefs were so huge it was a navigation hazard and now there are hardly any left. I know there is a huge difference in water clarity. Compared with John's Smith's day, it is like pea soup a lot of the time."
There are other changes besides the disappearing oysters that the crew has seen and documented.
"One of the biggest changes since Smith's voyage, outside of land development, is the rise in sea level of 3 feet since his time," Bystrom said. "We have lost a lot of shoreline. Many islands don't exist anymore. We just sailed over two yesterday that were here when Smith sailed. In Hooperville, the church was moved three times."
That may explain why Smith never explored the Choptank and Chester rivers on the Eastern Shore, a question that has long perplexed historians. "He could have easily never seen them," Bystrom suggested. "Islands extended all the way across the mouths. We realize more when we look at the charts and the maps. Everything that is 2 feet deep now was land years ago."
The sailors range in age from 24 to 32, with five women and seven men. Instead of period garments like blousey linen shirts and hand-sewn knickers they wear quick-dry micro-fiber shorts. And, they don't eat hard tack and jerked meat; they eat hummus, veggie wraps and trail mix.
They sleep on shore most nights in mummy sleeping bags and modern nylon tents at either prearranged parks or wildlife refugees. The crew pull out the binoculars at the end of the day and look for signs of life on shore. In Maryland, they carry a document from Gov. Martin O'Malley, much like King James would have given Smith. It instructs the citizens to allow safe harbor in any port they choose. England's Cross-of St. George flag waves on the mast of the shallop.
"We especially like when we see a Port-a-Jon," said William Ryall, a crew member from Great Britain. "If not we say, 'Can myself and 11 of my closest friends use your bathroom?'"
On board, they use a "Luggable Loo"-a toilet seat that snaps onto a 5-gallon bucket. There is no privacy, but everyone got over that the first few days of such close living. "You just look the other way and it's no big deal," Ryall said.
Two crew members rotate over who is responsible for selecting the menu for the week. They shop and prepare dinner, cooking on a two-burner Coleman stove.
Everyone got along from the get-go. Bystrom looked for a crew with amiable personalities who could get along easily with one another. Out of 100 applicants, these 11 were chosen.
The crew has never argued or had a single confrontation, miraculous as it sounds, even living in such tight quarters. Women and men mix as one large family. Everyone gets along famously. "We have to," Hall said. "There's no other option. You have to put everything else away."
They lived together for one month before they ever went on board the shallop. Experts in fields such as ecology, history, botony and anthropology came and taught them college-level courses on everything related with the voyage so they could be better educators when meeting the public.
Most of the crew sail or row and have some kind of educational background. Half of what Bystrom and the crew does is deliver the shallop from Point A to Point B, to 23 pre-determined ports. Every weekend they visit a different town and city and participate in an event. Here, they switch hats and become ambassadors for the Bay, sharing the story of their journey, what they discovered and ultimately showing how everyone-from the Susquehanna River to Hampton Roads-is connected to this waterway and the future health of the planet.
"Farmers we met upriver," explained crew member Forrest Richards, "complained of getting penalized for fertilizer runoff. They think the Bay as being so far away. But it is just lack of information and knowledge showing them the bigger picture."
The concept of connectiveness eludes many. One person in the District of Columbia asked the crew how they got from the Bay to Washington, D.C. The crew is trying to change that.
"If we were to draw new political boundaries in our country, the watershed as a guide would make the most sense," Bystrom says. "The watersheds are what connect people. They are using them to identify themselves, what is important to you, the environment. It is a huge part of your quality of life-what is going on in your watershed. This map itself-Captain John Smith's and the new National Park Historic Trail draws people together. And together, we can save the Bay."
They offer that message at each of their stops.
"We urge folks to take a personal interest in the Bay," Richards explained. "They can learn to do small things like not flushing the toilet as often, not fertilizing their lawns. When faced with an enormous task, people get overwhelmed. Yet there must be a massive change. Now politically, when the government recognizes a national historic trail, Congress knows it is significant to the national patchwork. The most important thing we can do is build public awareness. We want to create a sense of ownership to these people in these towns."
Austin said, "Coming from North Carolina, I thought the Chesapeake was spoiled and ruined. This is how many people see it out of the region. There are some industrially degraded parts, in the major shipping lanes, where we saw the imprint of cities on the Bay. The Bay is badly hurt but there is still so much the Bay has to offer if we take care of it. This has been a very hopeful trip. The Nanticoke River, for example, is perhaps the best-preserved river in the Bay. Its ecosystem is intact all the way to Seaford. I came from the mountains, where my whole life people have understood their connection to the land, to a place. The Chesapeake is a national treasure and it's in a million people's backyards."
After the crew's initial short burst of energy this morning, they have been sailing effortlessly for four hours. Around noon, the wind dies to a dead lull. Bystrom examines his GPS to determine if the crew should be sailing or rowing and now it is rowing. "SWIM CALL!" someone yells. They need to cool off before they struggle and sweat with the big oars.
The crew strips down to their suits and jump, dive or flip off the rail into the Bay. Afterward, their tan bodies glisten in the sun as their muscles once again take to the oars to finish their miles for the day. The shallop was built to sail, though, and is much too heavy to row continuously for days and weeks on end. They can row 12 miles a day or sail for 10-30.
A 1,000-ton bulk container cruises by. It makes no wake, but crew member Ashley Maloney said their scariest time so far was when they were cutting across a shipping lane and a freighter left an 8-foot-high wall of water in its wake. "Three quarters of the stern popped out of the water," she recalled. "People were screaming but it was so fun!"
Ahead is Echo Hill Outdoor School. A few crew members attended their summer camp as youngsters and were even counselors there. It holds a fond place in many of their hearts.
Like most of the places the shallop has pulled into-either large planned events in cities with playing brass bands, governors, the press, etc. or unexpected ones like this-a large, supportive crowd is gathering. Children and counselors from every corner of the camp pack the beach and clap and cheer and wave to the approaching wooden boat. The crew and their captain turn and row the boat into shore. They beach it onto the sand and immediately begin answering questions, sharing stories and doing their most important job, being ambassadors of the Chesapeake Bay.
Those who are interested in learning about the John Smith shallop, the Captain John Smith National Historic Water Trail or other related topics, will want to visit these sites: