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Ocean Bound

Calm seas, auspicious gales.

—Prospero, The Tempest

Three days after William Strachey’s arrival on board the Sea Venture , the vessels of the Jamestown fleet winched their anchors aboard, unfurled limited sail, and headed downstream with the current of the Thames. The cruise down the river, around the southeastern tip of England and along the coast of the English Channel, brought the fleet to Plymouth. The convoy passed the fish-curing houses at the entrance of the harbor and anchored to await going in turn to the quay for loading.

“From Woolwich the fifteenth of May, 1609, seven sail weighed anchor,” Gabriel Archer reported, “and came to Plymouth the twentieth day, where Sir George Somers with two small vessels consorted with us. Here we took into the Blessing (being the ship wherein I went) six mares and two horses, and the fleet laid in some necessaries belonging to the action, in which business we spent till the second of June.”

The port town on the Devon coast was well equipped to supply the fleet. A stone quay built in 1572 had proved its utility when British ships put in for provisions before going against the Spanish Armada in 1585. A freshwater stream was diverted to the town in 1591, providing a ready supply of water to fill the casks of outbound ships. Warehouses served by cranes lined Plymouth harbor and African slaves were among the shore-men who loaded ships. Here the vessels of the Jamestown fleet tied up and prepared to take on stores.

The Swallow and the Virginia joined the expedition at Plymouth and brought the fleet to a full complement of nine sail. The Virginia was a pinnace—a small sailing vessel designed for coastal waters—and had been constructed in 1607 at the Sagadahoc colony on the coast of present-day Maine, the second vessel ever built in English America. Meeting the fleet at Plymouth, too, was its admiral. A fellow colonist mistakenly judged the fifty-five-year-old George Somers to be “three score years of age at the least,” presumably due to a white head of hair. One voyager reported him to be in possession of a “worthy and valiant mind.” To another contemporary he was “a man very industrious and forward,” and to Strachey he was “a gentleman of approved assuredness and ready knowledge in seafaring actions.” Perhaps the best description of the admiral contrasted his demeanor on land and sea: “Sir George Somers was a lamb on the land, so patient that few could anger him, and (as if entering a ship he had assumed a new nature) a lion at sea, so passionate that few could please him.”

The admiral of the Third Supply was born in 1554 in Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast and had more than a decade of West Indies experience. Somers came out of retirement to join the expedition. During the last five years he had spent enough time on land to serve as mayor of his native town and to occupy a seat in Parliament. He joined the fleet late because he had been detained in Dorset for the making of his will. On April 23, 1609, he declared in the will that he was “intending to pass the seas in a voyage towards the land called Virginia.” In case of death he left his property to his wife Joan (who would stay behind) and, being childless, his nieces and nephews. One of those nephews was Matthew Somers, who would voyage to Virginia in the present convoy aboard the Swallow.

During the twelve days at Plymouth, the elite of the expedition may have stayed at a lodging house in a former monastery called the Mitre Inn and visited the house of the notoriously gregarious mayor. A contemporary observer gave the names of the officers of the fleet—Ratcliffe, King, Martin, Nellson, Adams, Wood, Pett, Webb, Moone, Philes, and Davies—and described them as “expert captains and very resolute gentlemen.” Lower ranking crewmen and the artisan crowd slept on board the ships, but some of them surely made their way through the doors of the Rose & Crown Tavern and the Pope’s Head Inn for beer and sack (white wine). The timing of the stopover worked well, since in early June the Plymouth fishing fleet was away at the Newfoundland banks. Few ships were in the harbor and plenty of workers were available to haul crates and operate pulleys and cranes.

The Sea Venture would carry one hundred and fifty-three people to the New World. On the flagship the personnel breakdown was about thirty-five mariners, with the other hundred and eighteen comprising gentlemen (and a few gentlewomen and children), servants, artisans, and peasants (also including a few family members). Only the total number and a few of the names are known, as no passenger list survives.

A servant woman named Elizabeth Persons was among those riding the flagship. Persons had left her family behind in England to travel to the New World in the employ of a Mistress Horton, one of the elite adventurers. As usual her chores would include tending to the needs of her employer, though in the unusual circumstances of the expedition her dealings with her would be less formal than usual. She would look after her clothing and luggage as best she could, fetch her water and other necessities from the general supply, and keep her sleeping area clean. The children on the vessel already tended to gravitate to the sides of young servants like Elizabeth, and would do so during the weeks ahead on the water.

John Rolfe, twenty-four, would also voyage on the Sea Venture. Rolfe would later marry Pocahontas as his second wife, but in 1609 his first wife (whose name is not known) was still living and would ride with him on the Sea Venture. Though the couple were probably not yet aware of it, they had conceived a child about two weeks before the fleet left Woolwich. Goodwife Rolfe would face both morning sickness and seasickness when the Third Supply set sail.

The expedition’s minister, Reverend Richard Buck, twenty-seven, rode the Sea Venture as well. Buck was educated in the halls and courts of Caius College, Cambridge. A fellow minister called him accomplished and painstaking in his theology—“an able and painful preacher.” Buck’s time at sea would be taken up with writing sermons to be delivered daily and providing counseling to any colonist who was feeling anxious. A voyager named Stephen Hopkins, a vociferous shopkeeper from Hampshire who frequently quoted the Bible, spent a lot of time with Buck. Strachey called Hopkins “a fellow who had much knowledge in the scriptures and could reason well therein, whom our minister therefore chose to be his clerk to read the psalms and chapters upon Sundays at the assembly of the congregation under him.”

Flint ballast from the Devon coast went first into the hold of the Sea Venture , to provide stability for the rough waters of the Atlantic. Large stones and scrap iron were placed in the bilge of the ship, then covered with gravel to provide a bed into which casks and crates could be nestled. The most important supplies in those containers were food and drink. The steward’s room, bread room, and hold were all stocked from the Plymouth warehouses. Plenty of Newfoundland salt cod went onto the ship. Strachey listed additional edibles needed for such a voyage as “butter, cheese, biscuit, meal, oatmeal, aquavitae, oil, bacon, any kind of spice, or such like.” John Smith went into greater detail, noting that transatlantic vessels carried ginger both dried and fresh, almonds, aged English and Dutch cheeses, wine from the Canary Islands, rashers of bacon, dried beef tongue, roast beef preserved in vinegar, minced mutton packed in butter, “the juice of lemons for the scurvy,” and candied fruit in the form of “suckets” and “comfits.”

Much of the food taken on in Plymouth was stored in earthenware containers made by potters in nearby Devonshire villages. Other utensils came from farther away: porcelain plates from China with painted images of hornless dragons; a calculating tool called a casting counter made in Nuremberg; ceramic Bartmann bottles molded by Germanic artisans with an image of a bearded man on each stem and the mottled coloration of tigerware; and Spanish olive jars filled with wine, wheat, and other foods. Foreign-made containers and implements were the exception, however. Most of the utensils were British-made: earthenware tankards, pewter spoons, knives, combs, thimbles, pins, padlocks, seals, and apothecary weights. The cookroom on such a ship, according to Smith, would have been stocked with all manner of eating and drinking vessels: “quarter cans, small cans, platters, spoons, lanterns, etc.” A carpenter’s chest would have been filled with “nails, clinches, rove and clinch nails, spikes, plates, rudder irons called pintels and gudgions, pump nails, scupper-nails and leather, saws, files, hatchets, and such like.”

Live animals were among the more conspicuous supplies loaded aboard the ships. Venetian ambassador Marc Antonio Correr described the taking on of “many oxen and ponies” and “a number of stallions and other animals.” A Dutchman wrote of animals as well, listing “some stallions and fourteen or fifteen mares, some young bulls and cows,” a herd of “bucks and nanny goats,” and “hogs as well.” Most of the animals went aboard ships other than the Sea Venture, but hogs and heath sheep would ride on the flagship in stalls on the gun deck next to the passengers. The other live cargo on the flagship was a dog (probably a mastiff), a cat or two, and—unintentionally—a few dozen rats.

The Sea Venture also carried arms, more as a hedge against attacks by other Europeans than the Powhatans in Virginia. The ship carried twenty-four guns classed as falconets, minions, sakers, and demiculverines, which weighed between five hundred and thirty-four hundred pounds and fired cannonballs up to twelve pounds. A good quantity of matchlock pistols and muskets, small shot, swords, and daggers completed the vessel’s arsenal.

Cape-merchant Thomas Whittingham oversaw the lading of the Sea Venture. Whittingham likely paid close attention to the placement of cargo in the hold, for the tilting of a ship to the starboard (right side) during loading was considered a bad omen. Conversely, a heel to larboard or landward was considered a sign of a fair sail. A sailors’ manual of the day advised care in loading: “Some superstitious seamen, when they take in goods or victuals for a voyage, if by chance in stowing the provision she heel to the starboard, will say it is a sign of a long and bad voyage.”

The passengers and crew who came from London had already marked out areas for sleeping and stowing belongings. The general choice of quarters was defined by tradition: sailors resided in the narrow confines of the bow in hammocks and bunks; officers and gentlemen occupied cabins at the stern. In the crowded conditions of the Sea Venture, temporary walled-in rooms in the rear portion of the enclosed gun deck probably augmented the permanent cabins. The common sort who had no room assignments slept on mattresses atop chests or on the gun deck floor.

John Rolfe tacked up curtains around the sleeping mattress he would share with his wife. The servant Elizabeth Persons selected a spot near the door of the cabin of her employer, Mistress Horton. Namontack and Machumps had little with them but their bows and arrows. They spent much of their time above on the open deck, but when below they kept to a cramped spot behind some crates. The reality was that for many of the voyagers the next few weeks would be spent in a small room with scores of strangers.

As May drew to a close, Governor Thomas Gates had still not arrived at Plymouth to join the expedition. The other leaders were growing concerned as the six hundred and sixty colonists and crew consumed the stores while the fleet sat in port. “The coming hither of Sir Thomas Gates is much desired to the end the ships may be speedily dispatched from hence,” a Virginia Company official wrote from Plymouth to London. “Sir George Somers has been here these two days, and the ships, if weather serve—God willing—shall be ready this next day. Their people—God be thanked—are all in health and well.”

Two things had delayed the expedition’s leader in London. First, the revised charter of the Virginia Company was not signed until May 23, necessitating Gates’s presence in Westminster Hall for that business. A week after the signing he was still in the city helping to organize the expedition that would follow in a few months. The governor finally finished his business on May 29 and immediately embarked to Plymouth to join the expedition he would lead to the New World.

Another turn of events was holding up the departure of the Third Supply. On April 9, 1609, Spain and the Netherlands signed a treaty ending fighting that had persisted despite a 1604 treaty between two other belligerents of the conflict, Spain and Great Britain. The end of the war prompted large numbers of British soldiers who had served as mercenaries in the Netherlands to come home, offering the Virginia Company a last-minute opportunity to fill its personnel quota for the expedition. The coincidence of the signing of the Dutch treaty and the launching of the expedition resulted in a larger-than-expected contingent of soldiers going to Virginia. The battle-tested men were familiar with the camp conditions they would find in the New World, but their presence would exacerbate the gulf between the elite gentlemen and the artisan class that was evident from the first days of the voyage.

One of the veterans of the Dutch battlefield was Gates himself, said by contemporaries to be “a grave, expert,” and “very remarkable soldier.” The leader of the Third Supply was born in about 1559 in Colyford, Devon. His overseas adventures began at age twenty-six, when he accompanied explorer Francis Drake to the Caribbean and South America to raid Spanish settlements. On the way home the fleet stopped at the Roanoke colony on the Virginia shore, providing Gates his first encounter with English colonial life. Gates also fought the Spanish on their home territory at Cadiz and was knighted for his efforts in 1596. He enlisted to fight in the Dutch wars in 1604, and four years later was granted leave to lead the present expedition to Jamestown.

Gates now at Plymouth and the ships laden with cargo and settlers, the expedition to Virginia began. Strachey reported that the departure from Plymouth was a nocturnal one on June 2. “Upon Friday late in the evening we broke ground out of the sound of Plymouth, our whole fleet then consisting of seven good ships and two pinnaces.” The vessels encountered contrary breezes before they cleared the channel, however, and withdrew to another port to await better prospects. “Crossed by southwest winds, we put in to Falmouth,” Gabriel Archer reported, “and there staying till the eighth of June, we then got out.”

The initial destination was the latitude of the Canary Islands, where the captains of the fleet would gather on the flagship to chart their course across the Atlantic. Crewmen of the Sea Venture were divided into watches soon after they left port. Captains traditionally called all hands to the upper deck and masters and master’s mates then took turns choosing sailors until the men were divided into two groups. Passengers on the Sea Venture who had never been to sea would then have listened with curiosity to the series of commands shouted by the master and mate as they put the ship to sea—as described by John Smith: “Yea, yea. Let fall your foresail. Tally, that is, haul off the sheets. Who is at the helm there? Coil your cables in small fakes. Haul the cat, a bitter, belay, loose fast your anchor with your shank painter. Stow the boat. Set the land, how it bears by the compass, that we may the better know thereby to keep our account and direct our course. Let fall your mainsail. Every man say his private prayers for a boon voyage.”

It was June 8, 1609, and the Sea Venture was departing for the New World. The men, women, and children aboard watched the sails set on the companion ships and the bluffs of the Falmouth coast recede to a line on the horizon. As the English coastline fell away, many on board surely felt the weight of the decision to go. The passengers did indeed say many prayers as the land of their birth was lost to view. Those on shore also appealed to heaven for a safe voyage. An official of the Virginia Company wrote in his diary as the ships departed: “God bless them and guide them to His glory and our good.”

For seven weeks the ships of the Jamestown fleet sailed in convoy. Strachey reported that the vessels “kept in friendly consort together, not a whole watch at any time losing the sight each of other.” The fleet would not be quite as large as expected, however, as the pinnace Virginia proved out of condition for a transatlantic crossing. The vessel that had joined the fleet at Plymouth turned around after a week at sea. Eight craft would sail on to Jamestown.

One family was especially glad that the ships stayed within sight of each other. Gentleman William Pierce was traveling to Virginia on the Sea Venture, while his wife Joan and their ten-year-old daughter of the same name were making the voyage on the Blessing. The reason for the separation is not known, but perhaps only one space was available on the Sea Venture and William and Joan thought it important that he make connections with the leaders who would ride on the flagship. William took to hailing his wife and child when the Blessing rode close enough to see the people on deck.

The rhythms of shipboard life were soon adopted by all aboard. When mariners traditionally came off watch to the mess on such a voyage, John Smith said, the cook gave them “a quarter can of beer and a basket of bread to stay their stomachs till the kettle be boiled, that they may first go to prayer, then to supper.” Meals consisted of “a dish of buttered rice with a little cinnamon, ginger, and sugar, a little minced meat, or roast beef, a few stewed prunes, a race of green ginger, a flapjack, a can of fresh water brewed with a little cinnamon, ginger, and sugar.” For a main course the cook might prepare “a little poor John—or salt fish—with oil and mustard, or biscuit, butter, cheese, or oatmeal pottage on fish days; or, on flesh days, salt beef, pork, and peas with six shillings beer.”

If the ships were becalmed at any point during such a voyage, Smith reported, “the men leap overboard to swim.” Voyagers like Stephen Hopkins were the ones most likely to take to the water. Gentlemen were less apt to partake in a cool dip, but they might watch from the gallery balcony at the stern. A resort to the gallery would have provided an opportunity for William Strachey or John Rolfe to smoke tobacco in clay pipes with tiny bowls—a small amount was used because tobacco was an expensive commodity in 1609.

For the few passengers who preferred the ship’s toilets to chamber pots, the onboard facilities were simply holes in the “head” deck that projected from the bow of the ship. The passengers accepted such things without complaint during the first days of the voyage. As time went on, the concessions in everyday living—certain to become even more pronounced in the forests of Virginia—began to seem more radical than they did when they first went to sea. The fresh breezes on the open deck, however, made up for some of the compromises. As the weather warmed with the fleet’s progress south it was at times downright pleasant to sit on deck and watch the other ships sail alongside.

The convoy made good progress during June and July. Colonist George Percy, then in Jamestown, would report that the fleet heading in his direction encountered “prosperous winds” during the first weeks at sea. Those winds and the Portugal Current pushed the convoy at an average speed of 3.3 knots (3.8 mph), for an average daily distance of 70 nautical miles (80.5 statute miles). The speed of the ships was measured using a line with a wooden float at the end, called a “chip log,” that was thrown into the sea from the stern balcony. The log line was allowed to play out until the sand finished falling through an hourglass (or in this case a half-minute glass), at which point the “knots” in the played-out line were measured.

As the Jamestown ships neared the latitude of the Canary Islands after two weeks on the water, they paused and the officers of the fleet came over to the Sea Venture in skiffs to plot the course they would take across the Atlantic. The route they chose would initially trace the traditional one, through the tropics at twenty-four degrees latitude. That would put them in tropical climes, but it was a latitude reliably within the westbound circulation at the bottom of the Atlantic’s vast clockwise wheel of trade winds. Once across the mid-Atlantic, however, the fleet would veer from the traditional passage. Instead of threading through the Caribbean, the vessels would turn north and traverse open water to Virginia. Company officials recommended such a route to avoid the Spanish waters of the Caribbean.

During the meeting on the Sea Venture, the officers of the Gates fleet selected a place at which the ships would rendezvous if they became separated. The decision was made to reunite at Barbuda in the Caribbean. Sir Walter Raleigh had sighted the island twelve years earlier and no other European power claimed it, making it a relatively safe place for a fleet of English vessels to meet in case of trouble. Barbuda’s location on the eastern fringe of the Caribbean chain meant ships going to it would be unlikely to encounter vessels of other European powers.

When the consultation on the Sea Venture was complete the officers returned to their ships and the fleet resumed the voyage. “We ran a southerly course for the Tropic of Cancer, where, having the sun within six or seven degrees right over our head in July, we bore away west,” Gabriel Archer wrote. The ships now began what Archer described as “tracing through the Torrid Zone.” The sailors strung sails as awnings to keep the sunshine from the pallid skin of the English passengers. An awning was essential for a ship passing through the tropics, according to a contemporary sailor’s manual. “In all hot voyages this is of infinite use, both to keep men from the sun by day and the dews by night, which in some places are wonderful infectious.” The tropics proved infectious, indeed, for the ships of the Jamestown fleet. Calenture or heatstroke killed thirty-two people on two of the ships, Archer wrote. There was a report of plague on the Diamond, he said, “but in the Blessing we had not any sick, albeit we had twenty women and children.” Children in another vessel were not so lucky: “In the Unity were born two children at sea, but both died, being both boys.” No disease broke out on the Sea Venture, but watching the splashes of bodies buried at sea from the other ships was a somber reminder that a combination of London plague and hot sun could be lethal.

In late July, after two months at sea and a week to go until landfall in Virginia, the voyage had proved to be a relatively easy one. The exotic nature of the New World had become clear as the temperate world of England gave way to blistering days and sweltering nights in the tropics. The weather had turned cooler, though, as the ships turned north before reaching the West Indies. The calm voyage muted any second-guessing among the passengers. In any case, there was no point in questioning the decision to leave home. As everyone in the fleet knew, there was no turning back now.

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