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Meet Eric Speth, Master of the Godspeed

For Eric Speth, master of the Godspeed, sailing the historic recreation is just another day at the office. He has been sailing these kinds of ships for more than 25 years, commanding a host of ships ranging the span of three centuries. Speth says that the Godspeed’s six square sails offer a unique window into the past — one that visitors to Alexandria’s Jamestown celebration will appreciate for its painstaking accuracy.

“The Gospeed was created to be a floating museum,” Speth said. “Visitors will get a very authentic experience of what it was like.”

A native of Long Island, N.Y., Speth received a bachelor’s degree in maritime science from the State Unversity at Stony Brook in 1979. He is now the maritime program manager for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, the Virginia agency that administers the Jamestown settlement.

“I’ve always been interested in sailing,” he said. “I guess it’s because I grew up in an environment with a lot of ships.”

In his career as a historic vessel master, Speth has sailed on a host of ships: the Pride of Baltimore, the Maryland Dove and the Charlotte Anne. He says that the closest analog to his experience on the Godspeed was when he piloted a recreation of the Elizabeth II, the square-rigged sailing vessel used to transport Sir Walter Raleigh’s expedition to the New World in 1585.

Although the original Godspeed carried 13 crew members and 39 passengers, the recreated Godspeed will be sailing with only the crew members. Job positions on board include mate, navigator, engineer, deck hand and cook.

“At any given time, we’ve got four to six crew members on watch,” Speth said. “It’s a very labor-intensive environment.”

SPETH HAS spent months poring over the historical record to get clues from the ship’s original occupants about the best way to make their way to Jamestown. The documents from the 17th century give contemporaneous clues about what worked and what didn’t — a record that has proven to be invaluable for Speth, who must maneuver the awkwardly shaped ship along the eastern seaboard. To accomplish this, he has transformed an otherwise academic record into a practical guidebook for himself and his crew.

“For example, we learned how to sail in a storm, maneuver in shallow waters and take soundings,” Speth said. “The sails can be set individually or in combination, so these documents are important because they allow us to apply the knowledge from the original crew about the best way to sail this ship.”

While modern ships have two triangular sails and a narrow hull, the Godspeed has six square sails and a wide hull. But don’t let its antique veneer fool you. The recreated Godspeed meets all United States Coast Guard regulations — including navigation lights, lifesaving equipment, modern bathrooms and a motor for when the wind isn’t cooperating.

“All of these things are carefully hidden away so that when we are in museum mode, the visitors will get an authentic representation of what the Godspeed was like,” Speth said. “But this is first and foremost a sailing ship, and we are always thinking about what it was like for the colonists.”