Welcome to Sail Freighter Fridays! This article is part of a series linked to our new exhibit: "A New Age Of Sail: The History And Future Of Sail Freight In The Hudson Valley," and tells the stories of sailing cargo ships both modern and historical, on the Hudson River and around the world. Anyone interested in how to support Sail Freight should also check out the Conference in November, and the International Windship Association's Decade of Wind Propulsion.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Today's Sail Freighter Friday biography is a guest post from Plimoth Patuxet Museums in Plymouth, MA. Since we have just finished out the Northeast Grain Race by talking about important ships involved in the original grain races around Cape Horn from Australia to England with grain, we're going to look at how those races, and the sailors involved in them, helped preserve the skills of working sail and wooden shipbuilding. Those skills are becoming important once again as the revival of Sail Freight gathers way.
In 1620, the original Mayflower carried 102 English passengers across the Atlantic Ocean in search for a better life. The Pilgrims, as they would come to be known, braved 66 days in the stormy, cold North Atlantic aboard the merchant ship. For some, this was their first ocean voyage. They established Plymouth Colony at the Wampanoag site of Patuxet and forever changed the course of history. Each year their story is told in classrooms across the Nation and particularly remembered during the Thanksgiving holiday.
Mayflower was an approximately 200 ton square rigged cargo vessel, armed for defense with light artillery, and primarily engaged in the cross channel and Canaries trade, before being chartered to cross the Atlantic in 1620. While her date of construction is unknown, average ship service lives were about 25 years at the time, and she was broken up in about 1624, meaning she was likely built between 1598-1600. The ability to carry freight was a major concern in the ship's design, and the rudiments of a Barque or Bark rig are evident in her Carrack rig: Three masts, two of which are square rigged and the aftermost (mizzen) mast rigged with a Lateen Sail, an early type of Fore-&-Aft sail.
While she did carry over 100 passengers on her transatlantic voyage, cargo was just as important, as the new settlers would require sufficient supplies to establish themselves. As passengers were principally considered a type of cargo in the 17th century, and hammocks were only just being adopted in Navies at the time. Passenger accommodations were extremely simple because moving people was less common than moving goods, and there were a very limited number of ships available. After her famous voyage in 1620, Mayflower seems to have returned to her previous occupation for a short time before being broken up.
Mayflower II, Plimoth Patuxet’s full-scale reproduction of the tall ship that brought the Pilgrims to Plymouth in 1620. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Mayflower II is where visitors learn about the journey that started a nation. Mayflower II was built between 1955 and 1957 in Brixham, Devon, England. The ship was always part of Harry Hornblower’s vision for Plimoth Patuxet Museums (formerly Plimoth Plantation). In 1951, Plimoth Patuxet contracted naval architect William A. Baker to research and design plans for a ship the size and type of the original Mayflower. Building on the work of previous scholars who tried to answer the question of what the Pilgrims’ Mayflower looked like, Baker scoured museums across Europe for period records that hinted at a design. As his research progressed, he published much of his work in a series of magazine articles.
At nearly the same time, unbeknownst to Plimoth Patuxet, a similar project was developing in England. Warwick Charlton founded Project Mayflower Ltd. to honor the alliance of friendship forged between the United States and England during World War II. Inspired by William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, he decided to build a reproduction Mayflower as a memorial to the alliance between the nations and sail it to America. While researching, Charlton’s team came across one of Baker’s articles. Shocked that a different organization had the same idea and already had plans, Charlton called the Plimoth Patuxet office. The partnership was born. Plimoth would provide Baker’s research and plans while Project Mayflower would build and sail the ship to Massachusetts.
The shipwrights under Stuart Upham at J.W. & A. Upham Shipyard built Mayflower II using traditional methods and tools familiar to 17th-century shipwrights. The adze, ax, and chisel shaped the ship from the keel up. When pressed to speed up production, Upham maintained that other than the occasional use of power tools, Mayflower II had to be built by hand. The construction of Mayflower II helped preserve nearly-lost wooden ship building skills. Older generations of shipwrights familiar with the craft shared their knowledge with the new generation working alongside them in the yard.
Mayflower II set sail from Plymouth, England on April 20, 1957 with a crew of thirty-three men under the command of acclaimed square-rigged ship captain Alan Villiers. As they neared Massachusetts’ shores, Mayflower II ran into a violent squall. No one aboard had experience handling a 17th-century vessel in inclement weather. However, Villiers remembered that Bradford described how Master Christopher Jones steered the original ship to safety during the 1620 voyage by lying ahull. Villiers and the crew executed the same maneuvers and calmly rode out the storm. On June 13, 1957 Mayflower II arrived in her new home port of Plymouth, Massachusetts. A crowd of 25,000 enthusiastic spectators witnessed the historic moment.
As with the construction of Mayflower II, the skills of square-rigged working sail (as opposed to leisure sailing) were also passed down through these projects by the last people in the Atlantic World to have moved cargo on similar ships. Villiers was a veteran of the Australia-UK Grain Races aboard both Herzogin Cecilie and Parma, having made many other sailing voyages in addition. These veterans were able to make possible a revival of working sail today, many decades after their deaths, as well as illuminating passages of historical documents which make little sense to those who have never worked with sail before.
This story highlights the importance of maintaining Mayflower II as a sailing vessel and illustrates the broadening understanding of preservation. At Plimoth Patuxet Museums we learn by doing. We learn how a 17th-century ship sails by sailing her. Like Villiers, we learn more about the Pilgrims’ experience aboard ship in 1620 when we sail Mayflower II. Through this work we preserve the historic crafts and skills required in square-rigged sailing.
Join Plimoth Patuxet Museums from June 11-13 to celebrate the 65th anniversary of Mayflower II’s transatlantic voyage. From games and crafts for the young ones to the Seaside Soiree for lifelong learners, there is something for the whole family. A special ceremony will be held on June 13 to honor the crew of the 1957 voyage. Learn more at www.plimoth.org.
Tom Begley is the Director of Collections and Special Projects at Plimoth Patuxet Museums.
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