Boat Rides on the Bay
Sailing Back in Time on the Dove
by Kent Mountford
photo courtesy of Historic St. Mary's City
One afternoon when I was a kid of about seven along the Jersey shore, my Uncle Sid said "Quick, Kent, run down to the inlet. There's a sailing ship coming in and you're not likely to ever see that again!"
Over the rock jetty, her old gray sails bellied out as, coming in with the wind on her beam, she breasted the tide. It was the start of a lifetime's fascination with sailing ships. And Uncle Sid seemed to be right. The last American square-rigged ship trading under sail was Tusitala, and she had made her final voyage the year before I was born. So I was forced to read about square sail in books and, later, on fit two of my own boats with home-made 'square' topsails to learn about their handling.
To my surprise and fascination, others around the world were unwilling to see square sail die. Today, as training ships, cruise ships and historical exercises, scores of square-rigged ships have been resurrected. I have had the joy to sail on four of these: Pride of Baltimore, a 19th-century replica; Providence, an 18th-century replica; and Godspeed and Maryland Dove, both replicas of ships from the 1600s.
The progenitors of these 17th-century ships were prime players in European colonization of the Chesapeake. Godspeed was one of three ships planting Jamestown and Dove one of two planting Maryland. They are working ships as faithful as history permits to the originals.
I have worked 29 years as an ecologist trying to heal the wounds subsequent colonists have delivered to this Bay. The problems we face today are mostly our responsibility, but they are compounded by mistakes made over nearly four centuries. To understand the Bay we have, I have struggled to peel away the layers of history and get at the Bay that was at the time of first contact. After reading scores of early accounts about the colonial period, I realize how hard it is to place oneself in the circumstances that these early settlers actually faced. The ships, to my delight, are one way to dramatically access the past.
As autumn of 1998 approached, I sailed once more with Capt. Will Gates aboard Dove.
This is the season when, in colonial times, the tobacco fleet sailed with its cargo to England. They sought to outwit unpredictable hurricanes and to beat the equinoctial and winter gales to follow. Security of the crop and its success at market determined what goods in kind - cloth, tools, muskets and medicinals - could return the following spring to make life easier on this difficult frontier.
Seventeenth century ships appear so unwieldy to our eyes, schooled to sleek, weatherly modern yachts that can sail within 35 degrees of the wind. The square-rigger is designed to sail before the wind, with the wind abaft her beam, blowing from behind. On the Downs in England they would often wait weeks for a fair wind to carry them to the Azores, where generally reliable tradewinds blew almost unceasingly across Columbus' old route to the Caribbean. In spring, west and southwest winds carried the mariners up to the Chesapeake.
The ships' captains often acted as entrepreneurs, sailing up the Bay's tributary rivers and creeks where planters would roll their tobacco, pressed densely into cylindrical casks, directly to a landing and strike their bargain. "Rolling roads" are all over tidewater, and this is what they were for.
Tobacco was best traded close to where it was cured because it "rolled poorly," shifting and fragmenting as it bounced along and degrading the quality of the leaf. Colonial administrators were frustrated by this because in central "market townes" like England's own, it was much easier to enforce policy and collect taxes. Some historians believe this convenience of a trade conduit at one's own "water-gate" is why the tidewaters of Maryland and Virginia both remained decentralized well into the present century.
photo by Adam Smith
Sailing 17th Century Style
The patience and skill to manage 17th-century sailing vessels in restricted tributaries with shifting winds, oyster banks and shoals was extraordinary. There was no engine to back you off if you ran aground without local knowledge of a sandbar. Capt. Tindall, who navigated the original Jamestown ships in 1607, made a working chart of the James and York river mouths that shows navigation hazards, apparently oyster banks, all over the place.
Surprisingly, Dove ghosts along at a knot or two even in the faintest of breezes and, anchoring to avoid being carried back by unfavorable tides, she might work her way up even labyrinthine creeks some 15 miles in a day's time. But when the wind is in her face - blowing from the direction you wish to go - a pinnace such as Dove can only angle up within about 60 degrees of the wind, twisting or "bracing" the yards (those crossing spars that spread her sails) as nearly parallel to the ship's centerline as complex rigging will allow.
To tack a modern yacht with fore and aft sails attached directly to the mast, you simply turn into the wind. The sails luff or flap until the boat's turned past the wind's direction, and you let the sails fill on the other side, thus zig-zaging, by stages, to windward.
Aboard the square-rigged Dove, we round the ship up into the wind until the big square sails are blown backwards against the rigging, virtually stopping the ship's 42 tons. The captain cries "mainsail haul," and the yards are swung around by a myriad of crew slacking and hauling a dozen or more lines exactly in concert. The ship fills her sails with wind on the other side, and crew trims them for best effect on the opposite other tack. Thus we advance slowly, and with much labor, to windward.
Square-rigged ship rigs are designed to bear tremendous wind forces from behind but in heavy weather, when the ship is tacked, blowing the sails "aback" against the rigging, there's a real danger of being dismasted. So instead, she was turned downwind in a circle, and her dozen or more lines controlling the yards continually adjusted, first square to the centerline, then hauled them in, until they were braced on the other tack. This maneuver, while safer for the ship and her rig, meant a lot of lost ground in making perhaps a mile's circle. You couldn't, and can't, do this in close quarters without sea room.
To strike a sail on a modern sailing vessel, you simply let go the halyard and it comes down. To set it, you pull the same rope.
Setting and furling sails on 17th-century model ships can't be done from the deck. Crew have to go aloft on "ratline" ladders laced to the rigging that sway, pitch and jerk tight with the ship's wallowing motion. You step off virtually into space with the deck many yards below and sidle out along the yardarms to port and starboard. Your feet are braced on footropes looped horizontally under the spar, and your belly is bent over the wooden yard. Both hands are employed trying to loose or gather a thousand square feet of galloping canvas that billows below. No "one hand for the ship" here.
When anyone else steps onto the footropes, they are to sound off "Laying on starboard (or port)!" for the changing weight distribution can pitch the first guy to his death on deck or into the sea. Same goes for "laying off" the footropes. No safety nets, no way to stop and pick up the unfortunate, who likely couldn't swim anyhow. If you landed on deck and survived Enough said in a time before even rudimentary antiseptics, anesthetics, orthopedic surgeons or workman's compensation.
Getting sail in is extreme labor in heavy weather. Clew and buntlines are hauled from the deck to bunch the sails up as far as possible against the yards, but great bulges of canvas gallop in the wind. A wet maincourse, largest sail in these ships, could weigh hundreds of pounds. In a blow, both hands are needed for furling, fists to pound hand-holds into drum-tight, often wet or ice-covered canvas and haul it up close to the yard. Gasket lines hanging from the yard are spiral-wound around the sail, containing it by stages and squeezing out the wind until it lies furled, like a tamed canvas sausage, along the spar.
Sailors throughout the history of square sail have trimmed their fingernails back to the quick. Any rim of nail showing risks being torn entirely off by rough, thrashing canvas while you struggle aloft in a storm. I know from 44 years sailing that you might not even feel it until much later, when it starts bleeding and hurting.
Even on the Dove, a dozen pair of hands might be necessary to get in sail during heavy weather. We had 11 working crew aboard Dove, which displaces 42 tons. The Delaware River's reconstructed Kalmar Nyckel weighs in at 350 tons. Imagine the sails of a thousand-ton man o' war.
On my last trip aboard Dove, four of us serviced the mainmast, going aloft twice to climb out, set and furl the maincourse, then hanging upside down from the futtock shrouds and swinging up into the "tops," a platform where the large mainmast is joined to the smaller but still higher topmast, to set and furl the topsail. Four more crew went aloft on the foremast for a total of eight aloft. It was light weather, we wore modern safety harnesses "clipped in" to the rigging and under the skilled eye of Sailing Master John Fulchiron, we dealt only with the weight of canvas, our own balance and securing the gaskets.
In the 17th century, I would have been considered an "ancient," unsuited for such work above deck.
photo by Adam Smith
Would You Go Back?
My colleagues and I often speculate what life in the 17th-century Chesapeake was really like. We would dearly love to see it, see what the Bay, her great fisheries, the forests, the people, were like.
But were we really born too late? Would we have wanted to live then?
When Dove came into her pier at St. Mary's City, I was still aloft with crewmates passing the gaskets. It was near dark when I hiked up the steep river bank with the daylight dying behind me. I had had a physically demanding day before joining Dove, and I was really tired. I'd cut firewood for winter, hauled a small boat up 38 feet of river bank, had been immersed in salt water part of the day and was sweaty enough to attract a cloud of mosquitoes.
I imagined I was back there in time, passing the dingy unpainted clapboards of Farthing's Ordinary. The mosquitoes would likely have borne malaria. I would likely have been five weeks unbathed, probably cut and injured from some accidents of the voyage and bound back to some rude cabin laboriously and inexpertly built from forest products.
I was only here, after all, because of my failure at getting a living in England. I had shipped out of Bristol on the southwest coast as an alternative to debtor's prison five years ago. Starting with nothing, I had 50 acres, a suit of clothes and a few tools after three years' indentured servitude under a demanding master.
Mice, insects and mold had moved in during my absence. The tobacco that was my livelihood was overgrown with weeds and much plagued with the worm. Squirrel and deer had got far too much of my winter's corn - the food supply. The "salvage" Piscataway Indians had stolen my large iron pot. My own indentured man, in addition to the work left undone, had absconded, taking one of my two steel axes. My woman, herself a transport from Newgate Prison, was showing symptoms in the latter-stages of French pox. I would certainly have died within the year, and being illiterate, could not even have made a will.
Despite my eagerness about Chesapeake history, I was most grateful to get on the highway and drive 22 miles home for a good dinner, a long hot shower and to stretch out with my purring cat for a quiet night on clean white sheets.
"Sailing Back in Time on the Dove" is the fourth in our series of first-person experiences riding the big boats of Chesapeake Bay. We bring it to you as the newly harvested tobacco of 1999 dries in the barns of Southern Maryland.
Like the Dove, some of these boats were built for work, some for pleasure. Many are relics of fleets whose time has come and gone. Others are brand new.
Keep steaming, sailing and motoring with us.
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Volume VII Number 37
September 16-22, 1999
New Bay Times