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About a Boat

Godspeed, a recreation of an 17th-century ship will dock in Alexandria.

As the Godspeed veers up the Potomac River toward Old Town Alexandria, its voyage will represent a kind of evolution — a 17th-century ship docking in an 18th-century seaport to inaugurate a 21st-century festival. Sailing into the future with its wide hull charting a course into history, the ship will dock to great fanfare for an unprecedented commemoration. The 72-ton recreation will interpret the colonization of Virginia, docking at Founders Park for an eight-day celebration of America’s oldest English settlement.

“This is a sailing vessel, first and foremost,” said Eric Speth, master of the Godspeed and maritime program manager for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. “It very closely resembles the original Godspeed — as close as we could get.”

The foundation spent $2.7 million to recreate the Godspeed, one of the three ships that carried the original settlers to Jamestown in 1607. A core group of 12 builders worked on the vessel full time, with 28 people working on it altogether. The building process took about 18 months to complete, and its design was based on meticulous research of 17th-century rules of tonnage documented in naval treatises of the day. Builder John England of Rockport Marine in Rockport, Maine, employed a team of shipwrights, sparmakers, riggers, painters, laborers and a blacksmith who oversaw the construction effort.

“It’s kind of like a house,” said England. “You just start at the bottom and work your way up.”

The new Godspeed is 88 feet long with a 17-foot draft and a 7-foot mast. The ship has three masts with six square-shaped sails made of Oceanus cloth. The mainmast will fly the historic British flag from the era, which combined the English Cross of St. George with the Scottish Cross of St. Andrew. The hull has been decorated in a red and white diamond pattern, with a red and white half-diamond pattern on the beakhead.

“The hull shape requires a greater sail area, and the sails can be operated together or individually,” Speth said. “It very closely recreates the Godspeed.”

THE ORIGINAL GODSPEED set sail from London on Dec. 20, 1606 for a four-moth journey across the Atlantic Ocean. The operation was financed by the Virginia Company of London, a start-up venture with a business model based on extracting profits from the New World. With an initial stock offering of 10 pounds and 12 shillings, investors knew that that the company was a high-risk proposition. The memory of Sir Walter Raleigh’s disastrous “lost colony” was still a fresh memory, and England’s record of failure served to bolster its image as a third-rate colonial power. Yet the promise of gold and silver — instant wealth — proved to be an almost irresistible force.

The Susan Constant was the flagship of the Virginia Company’s expedition, carrying 71 people. It was armed with cannons for protection against pirates, leading the way for the other two ships: the Godspeed, which carried 52, and the Discovery, carrying a mere 21. Unlike Raleigh’s expedition, this voyage would include no women. About half of the passengers were “gentlemen,” members of the upper class who were seeking adventure and riches.

“The men had come to the enterprise with a range of motives, and their hopes and fantasies would have run likewise,” wrote historian David Price. “Most of the travelers were on board because they — like the Virginia Company itself — expected quick treasure.”

The original Godspeed was 68 feet long, with a capacity of 40 tons. At its broadest point, the ship was around 15 feet wide. It was under the command of Bartholomew Gosnold, a man who received a formal education at the University of Cambridge and the Inns of Court. He changed careers in his late twenties, leaving his law practice to take up privateering. In 1602, he made a historic trip to New England — discovering Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard, which he named for his daughter, Martha.

“We cannot gather, by anything we could observe in the people, or by any trial we had thereof ourselves, but that it is as healthful a climate as any can be,” Gosnold wrote in a 1602 letter to his father. “The inhabitants there, as I wrote before, being of tall stature, comely proportion, strong, active, and some of good years, and as it should seem very healthful, are sufficient proof of the healthfulness of the place.”

By 1606, Gosnold had returned to England to become a prominent member of the Virginia Company. When the Godspeed set sail, he was about 35 years old — well into midlife by the standards of the day. He would eventually succumb to disease in the New World, leaving behind a wife and three young children.

LIFE ABOARD the Godspeed was difficult. Aside from having 52 people crammed into a space about as big as three parking spaces, passengers and crew members were held to a high moral standard. Any member of the crew who was caught in a lie was placed under the control of the swabber, usually assigned the task of keeping the beakhead clean. The “liar” was responsible for washing the slats suspended that were used as a necessary facility for all passengers of the ship — a job that involved the unpleasant task of clearing raw sewage from the ship’s bow.

“It would not have been very pleasant,” said Speth, master of the modern Godspeed. “They were very crowded.”

The course the three ships took toward the New World was far from direct. It involved heading south toward the Canary Islands, then southwest toward the Caribbean, eventually following the east coast northward to Virginia. The plan was laid out by the master of the Susan Constant — Christopher Newport, a former Caribbean pirate — to take advantage of the North Atlantic trade winds.

“Sailing before the trades in a square-rigger is as near heaven as any seaman expects to be on the ocean,” wrote historian Samuel Eliot Morison. “There is the constant interplay of light and color on the bellying square sails (silver in the moonlight, black in starlight, cloth-of-gold at sunset, white as clouds themselves at noon), the gorgeous deep blue of the sea, flecked with white-caps, the fascination of seeing new stars arise, the silver flash when a school of flying fish springs from the bow wave, the gold and green of leaping dolphins.”

To measure their speed, crew members threw a “long line” overboard. This was basically a board attached to a rope, which the crew would unreel while a thirty-second sandglass emptied. The navigator would count the evenly spaced knots in the line as they passed — a trick that is the origin of the modern term “knots” as a measure of nautical speed.

On March 23, the ships reached the West Indies. They landed first on Dominica to replenish their supply of food and water. Then they began several days of island hopping to Guadalupe then the Virgin Islands then Vieques then Puerto Rico. Finally, on April 26, 1607, they reached Virginia. The ships sailed into the Chesapeake Bay and dropped anchor near a spot they called “Cape Henry” after one of King James’ sons. They immediately sent a landing party to find the gold and silver that would make them rich.

“Wee could find nothing worth speaking of,” one of the men wrote in his diary. “but faire meddowes and goodly tall Trees.”

ROCKPORT MARINE, the Maine-based builders of the Godspeed recreation, placed its order for lumber before it was even awarded the contract. The wood — angelique for the ship’s structure, wana for the frame and silver bali for the decking — came from Surinam, on the northeast coast of South America. This may seem like a long way to go for wood, but the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation’s experience with a replica Godspeed made from mundane yellow pine left it eager for something a bit more exotic.

As a display ship, Godspeed will spend most of its life tied to a dock and rocking gently in still water, a perfect environment for wood-eating parasites. The foundation’s current Godspeed, built in the early 1980s, required numerous expensive repairs because of its susceptibility to a local wood rot. But the woods from Surinam are known for their outstanding resistance to rot and worms. Rockport Marine based the lumber order, and all of their subsequent work, on architectural drawings from Tri-Coastal Marine, located in Richmond, Calf.

“If you give them a length and a few parameters they know what the shape was and how the construction should go,” explained England, the project manager who oversaw construction of the ship. “There are records for what they call keel length and tonnage. From there it’s just a matter of historical research over the years.”

This shape is called a “triple arc.” Because there were no standardized plans, ship builders in 1600 determined the shape of each individual boat based on the desired length, tonnage and the shape of the wood available for building. England said the ribs of the ship would not be a smooth curve but a series of flat stretches knit together with sharp and shallow curves.

When the lumber arrived, Rockport Marine was ready to begin construction. The keel of the ship — the ridge that runs the length of the vessel’s belly — was laid on Dec. 1, 2004. Plans for the Godspeed called for 31 “frames” or rib sections, which determine the shape of the ship, to be set up along the keel. Each frame is made up of 12 parts, called “futtocks.” The frames are attached to the keel and held together by wooden pegs made of black locust, called trunnells. Builders pound in the pegs with a mallet, then split the ends of the trunnells by driving in a white oak wedge. Using wood instead of metal nails prevents corrosion.

After the frames have been secured to the keel with their trunnells, the beams of the deck are attached to the frames using “knees,” or 90 degree angled brackets. To strengthen construction, the knees are made of naturally growing trees’ knees, in this case hackmatack from Maine, which grows naturally in this shape. Using natural knees ensures that the grain of each side runs parallel to the the wood it is attached to. After the deck goes up, the planking of the hull is screwed onto the frames with bronze screws.

“They fit tightly edge to edge, one plank next to another,” England said.

After attaching all the planks, a caulker spent several months driving cotton caulking into the seams with a mallet and a calking iron, which resembles a putty knife. After driving in the caulking, the caulker spread a seam compound over it made of poly-sulfide rubber.

When the hull of the ship was complete, the builders filled it. They set tanks and electrical wiring into the bottom, and installed twin 115 horsepower diesel engines, a galley with a propane stove and refrigeration, a head with a shower and a full bank of electronics including radar and global-positioning system.

THE SHIP IS steered from the quarter-deck — a raised, open area at the rear — with a tiller that connects to the rudder. A binnacle, or cabinet, sits before the tiller. Opening the authentic-looking binnacle reveals the ship’s full array of blinking, beeping modern navigation tools. When the installations were completed, the ship was raised onto a hydraulic lift and driven to the far side of the harbor because it was too big to launch from the boatyard itself.

“That’s quite a day when you cart the boat up the hill and right through the center of town to the other side of the harbor,” England said.

With the ship only days away from being launched, there was only one minor detail to attend to: dropping the three masts into place using an enormous crane. The masts were constructed out of Douglas fir trees from British Columbia by Elk Spars in Bar Harbor, Maine. They were set into place one week before the ship’s launching. England described the operation.

“They guy on the crane needs to know what he’s doing and the guy that’s guiding the mast in needs to keep their hands out of the way,” England said.

No trunnells, bolts, bronze screws or hackmatack knees were used to secure the masts to the ship. They were dropped into place with their shrouds already mounted. The shrouds are strong lines that run from the top of the mast and are fixed to the sides of the ship. To secure the masts the builders simply attached the shrouds and tightened them down.

The masts “weigh quite a bit, so they’re not going to bounce out on their own,” England reassured a reporter who was anxious about the reliability of this ancient form of securing mast to ship.

After the shrouds were tightened, riggers swarmed up the three masts, just as riggers have always done, to begin stringing the miles of rigging that are used to manipulate the ship’s six sails. England said the lines are made of modern polyester, and the sails are made of a special Dacron synthetic that resembles the canvas used during that period.

“This boat was considered, I’m sure, state of the art 400 years ago,” said England.

The Godspeed is a bark with three masts: the fore, main and mizzen. England listed the mainmast as 62 feet over the water, the fore 10 feet shorter and the mizzen 15 feet shorter than the fore. He said that his reckoning of the ship’s length does not sync with the figure of 88 feet that he’s seen published.

“You see figures that say 88 feet and I don’t know how in the hell they measure that,” England said.

He said the Godspeed might be 74 feet if the beakhead at the front is included, but the deck itself is 65 feet.

JOE YOUCHA, executive director of Alexandria’s Seaport Foundation, said that the Godspeed recreation was an excellent opportunity to experience historic shipbuilding firsthand. He said that he was looking forward to the arrival of the Godspeed as a learning tool that would allow visitors to step into the past.

“You can read all you want about it, but these ships give you the ability to see yourself there,” Youcha said. “We’re pretty much all immigrants to this country and the vast majority of our ancestors came on wooden ships.”

Youcha described one aspect of the experience on the ship that stands out in his imagination. He advised visitors to see themselves standing at the tiller.

“You’ve got to think that somebody’s got to be at the end of that lever all the time in all the weather without any protection … They’re just out there.”

He also urged visitors to consider that “these boats only went downwind ... One of the things that’s always interesting to me is that you have places in the world and in this country that exist because of how these ships were propelled and what they could get to. And Alexandria is one of them … Alexandria and Georgetown exist because it was as far as you could come up the river with a big ship.”

But Youcha added that Alexandria’s relation to the Godspeed goes back to a time before cargo vessels similar to it were moored in its harbor and driving the economy that fed its bustling shops and inns.

“A ship very much like this brought a small boat with it that John Smith used to explore the Chesapeake and its tributaries,” Youcha explained. “And one of the places he came … was the Indian village that was where Reagan Airport is now … The first white people to see the shoreline probably came on the Godspeed.”

— Researcher Bette Zeller contributed to this report.