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Mayflower II sets sail across the Atlantic

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Ships on Friday, 31 May 2013

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This edited article about the Mayflower originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 275 published on 22 April 1967.

Mayflower II, picture, image, illustration

Mayflower II sets sail across the Atlantic

I have never sailed in anything really like an old ship-of-the-line, but we have only to go to Portsmouth and board HMS Victory, Lord Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar, to see what they were like.

I have sailed a few frigates, but these were over-built copies on the hulls of Italian brigantines down in the Mediterranean, strictly for motion picture purposes. Nonetheless, they were interesting. Their rig was authentic, though their ‘guns’ were electrically controlled to fire better broadsides than any real ship ever did! The authentic blood-red paint covered the gun surroundings, but any ‘blood’ that splashed there was strictly from the art department. But we made boardings in the open sea, sailed into one another in the real old manner, belched smoke and flames – and if there were no cannon-balls, at any rate the clash of cutlasses was real.

Between pictures, these ‘frigates’ were to be seen alongside the harbour wall in Alicante, Valencia, or maybe Denia. As far as I know, they are still in one of these places.

I learned something from them, though mainly of the ways of the film-makers – an amazingly able, courageous and versatile group.

Once I had a chance really to step back a few centuries in the sea history of Europe. This was by sailing a replica of the famous Pilgrim Fathers’ Mayflower from Plymouth in Devon, to the other Plymouth, in Massachusetts, in 1957.

The original had sailed in 1620 with no fanfare at all, having been preceded by many British ships whose names and achievements are not nearly so well remembered – Drake among them (that amazing man), and other famed Elizabethans. They had sailed to Roanoke, to Jamestown in Virginia, to Bermuda, to the coast of Maine. British settlers went mysteriously missing at Roanoke, and no one knows what happened to them to this day. But at Jamestown, where they arrived in 1607, they stayed: copies of the little ships they came by are still to be seen in the James River, where they were built for the 350th anniversary.

At first, I didn’t think much of trying to sail the replica Mayflower, but I did like the idea of trying to sail a real copy of the late 16th-century ship across the North Atlantic to find out what it used to be like.

This new Mayflower had the authentic rig and sail-plan, and of course she had no engines. When the original went to America, she simply sailed crowded with unfortunate human beings (many of whom sought only the right to worship freely), their servants (if any), and their belongings. There was no accommodation as such, apart from a few bunks put up hurriedly in the ship’s great cabin, which the master – one Christopher Jones – hired out. It was his by tradition, and he could do what he liked with it.

With a crew of 30-odd, there were nearly 200 persons aboard, men, women and children. They stretched out in their clothes where they could, in family groups, and it seemed to me that they were worse off by far than the Arab passengers I’d sailed with in the Indian Ocean. At least there it was warm and dry, and the Arabs knew more or less where they were going.

Fortunately for us, in these days, ships cannot just do what they like. No ship may load up at an English port and sail with all the people she can crowd aboard. She has to be approved, surveyed, insured, documented. She has to comply with the rigid requirements of many Acts of Parliament. She has to have so many cubic feet a head for all her people, provide reading light of a certain standard for her crew, carry life-saving equipment and boats for twice the numbers aboard, be fitted with wireless telegraphy, a hospital, and all sorts of other things. There are departments of government charged with the duty of seeing that all these regulations are obeyed – unless the vessel is classed officially as a pleasure yacht, in which case there may be some modification.

The Ministry of Transport decreed that the replica Mayflower could carry no passengers, only members of the crew. She did not need to be fitted with lifeboats and davits, but, not having these (which would, of course, be historically quite wrong) she had to carry twice as many inflatable rubber rafts as she required for the crew, and a wireless transmitting set, with an operator. The idea was that we must send a position report each day so that, if ever we had to take to the rafts, searching vessels would have a good idea where to look for us. This struck me as unnecessary pessimism but, perhaps, wise. After all, nobody knew how the ship would sail, or indeed whether she would handle at all.

The crew had bunks, if they wanted them. There was a modern galley and we had an excellent cook. There was no refrigeration, but I bought whatever I could. Canned, dried, and pre-packed foods are plentiful and good nowadays, and we took a few casks each of old-fashioned salt ‘horse’ and salt pork, just as standbys. These were the staples, with bonehard, dried codfish, of the old days, together with cheese, rice, lentils, beans of all sorts, biscuit, and flour to make bread.

We also had tinned and dried fruits to keep the scurvy away, and a friendly London brewer put up a special brew of Mayflower beer. This also was historically correct. The old mariners drank lots of beer and rum because the fresh water, kept in casks, soon became nauseating. We had the fresh water in steel tanks down below: some details of historical accuracy can be foolish.

As for crew, there was no trouble about that. Good, young and not-so-young Britons volunteered by the thousand. I had experienced Cape Horn officers and several ABs, as well as a splendid old Welsh bos’n, an old-style cook who could work without tin-openers and the rest included a Fleet Air Arm pilot (on leave) and several undergraduates. Without this crew I could never have made the voyage.

We had no chance to try out the ship before sailing. There were too many speeches, for one thing. The publicity was tremendous, time-wasting, and without end. I had nothing to do with all this, for it was not my business. All I had to do, under God, was sail the ship and – we all hoped – safely arrive. Some optimists in the USA, unaware or not caring about the limitations of a wind-driven ship, had named an arrival date which I for one knew we could not keep. But we had to try.

So I sailed. It was calm. We drifted the wrong way with the up-channel tide. No matter. The ship was all right. We had a chance to practise setting and handling the sails. They were awkward, but they worked. She steered well. The galley worked. The crew were enthusiastic. But the motion of the little ship – 180 tons Elizabethan – was unpredictable and endless. She was carrying a lot of ballast to stand up straight, and a valuable cargo of ‘trade’ goods besides – not to barter with the Red Indians, but for the Dollar Exports Council, to go on exhibition for the promotion of British sales in USA.

Wind came, and freshened. I had one awful handicap the Pilgrim Fathers were spared – I could listen to all the weather forecasts! They were appalling! Gales and gales, and more drift-ice and big ‘bergs in the North Atlantic shipping lanes than there had been for years.

I looked aloft as the ship leapt in the increasing seas, and noted with horror that the wooden masts, stayed with hemp in the classic manner, were rolling two feet each side more than the ship did. I wondered: will she roll those sticks out? It seemed horribly likely.

The wind piped up. The forecast said it would be west. I could be jammed in the Bay of Biscay, wrecked on Ushant or the north coast of Spain. The sea leaped all round, and so did the ship. The wind went to north-west. I plugged out to windward to get free of the Channel and the French coast. The wind stayed in the north-west, freshening. Clear of France, I turned and ran for Finisterre. She ran like a sea-born deer, though she rolled like a half-awash hog. The masts still ‘worked’, but they stayed there. The lower sails were big and awkward. I took in the upper sails. Those weather forecasts were still terrible.

I continued southwards, down the coast of Portugal, past Madeira, down towards the Canary Islands. Still she ran. From the Canaries, I picked up Columbus’s tracks westwards towards the West Indies. What the Santa Maria could do, I thought, we could also manage. We did. Near the West Indies, I swung towards the north with the Gulf Stream’s outer drift. There were calms. One week we made perhaps 400 miles. No matter: in just less than two months of sailing (with some drifting) we were at anchor off Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts, and the welcome was terrific. My crew were good and the little ship proved that, despite her imperfections, she was a good ship.

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