In was in 1607 that three English ships — the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery — arrived off the coast of Virginia. And 412 years later, you’ll find recreations of those ships moored not far from where the original fleet made landfall at Jamestown Island.
Whether anchored at Jamestown Settlement or at other ports, a dedicated group of museum staff and volunteers tell the story of some of the most iconic historical attractions in the region.
A floating museum
It’s an overcast, humid June morning when the first museum visitors of the day climb aboard the Godspeed, tied up at a pier within sight of sister ships the Susan Constant and Discovery. The ships -- recreations of the historic vessels -- try to make the 1607 journey by English colonists to Virginia as real as possible for visitors.
“We’ve got sails being set, we’ve got navigation tools out, gun drills going on below decks. So it’s really focused on being hands-on and getting people involved in the history,” said First Mate Hank Moseley of the Jamestown Settlement maritime program.
But a desire to create hands-on experiences to make history come alive for visitors can be said of any museum in the Historic Triangle. What sets the Jamestown Settlement ships apart is their seagoing status.
Though all three vessels are seaworthy, Godspeed is the most frequent traveler. The trips bring the story of Jamestown out of Jamestown Settlement and to other ports, and maybe encourage visitors to spend time at Jamestown Settlement.
“We can take that show on the road. We’re really an outreach of the museum,” Moseley said, noting that at Harborfest, an annual maritime festival held in Norfolk earlier this month, Godspeed welcomed 3,000 people aboard. Volunteers and historical interpreters worked together to get the ship to Norfolk to teach visitors about early American history.
“It gave them a little taste of what they can experience here at the museum,” Moseley said.
Getting there and getting home is an undertaking unto itself.
With just three maritime programming staff members — Moseley, Captain Eric Speth and Second Mate and Engineer Todd Egnor — the crew of 60 volunteers are critical to making the ships operate.
“Without the volunteers, these ships don’t run,” Moseley said.
Among the volunteers is Joran Gendell, who has volunteered with the program since 2007. The tight-knit community and fun of the work has kept him at it for more than a decade.
“There’s the joy of messing about in boats. We have quite an interesting coterie of volunteers, people from all walks of life. And then there’s the joy of sailing the square-rigged vessel,” he said.
While at sea, the Godspeed is every bit the sailing operation. The crew is divided into port and starboard watches, and duties vary day to day. While one watch takes care of morning chores, the other gets the ship underway, unfurling sails and setting crewmen at the helm and on lookout. At noon, the watches switch, Gendell said.
But it’s all hands on deck if the ship needs to change its sails. Or if something unexpected happens.
Like man overboard. The crew practices drills in the event of such an emergency using a dummy called Oscar.
As a re-creation of a historic sailing ship, it’s always preferable to harness the wind to get around.
“We try to sail them as much as we possibly can. That’s the draw, that’s the allure,” Egnor said. “We try to do everything as traditionally as we possibly can.”
When that’s impossible, technology steps in.
The modern and historical
Godspeed carries twin 115-horsepower diesel engines to help it keep its calendar of event appearances. The engine is just one example of how the Godspeed is a marriage of the modern and the real McCoy.
Below deck, and behind some wood paneling that’s screwed into place when the ship is in museum mode, is the galley. It’s a tight space, but features a propane stove, refrigerator, running water, a microwave and an instant pot.
The crew doesn’t skimp on its food, or hold itself to historical restrictions.
So sailing fare that would have been familiar to Bartholomew Gosnold, the captain of the historic Godspeed when it came to Virginia, such as salted beef, oatmeal and bacon, gives way to dishes like poached salmon and chili.
“They had pickles, we have pickles. They had hardtack. Our hardtack just happens to be a little sweeter than theirs in the form of chocolate chip cookies,” Egnor said.
Also below deck is a padlocked wooden door. Behind it is a full range of modern monitoring equipment to keep tabs on the ship’s operational status when it’s underway.
“We’re pretty creative about how we hide things,” Moseley said as he thumbed in the combination to unlock the door, revealing the rows of sensors hidden from view.
Other things, owing to safety standards, are harder to hide away. Like fire extinguishers that have to be easily accessible. They’re partially hidden by nondescript covers.
Life aboard the ship is a bit like camping, Moseley said.
“Probably the closest comparison is RV camping,” he said. “Think about living in an RV but with 13 people.”
To continue the camping metaphor, Moseley described sailing the Discovery — the smallest ship with a roughly 50-foot deck — as more akin to tent camping. The Godspeed has a deck that’s 65 feet long, while the Susan Constant has a deck that’s 82 feet long.
Usually, trips are a week and a half to three weeks long. To generate interest in the 400th anniversary of Jamestown in 2007, all three ships embarked on a three-month-long tour of East Coast ports, Moseley said.
“That in and of itself was special to have all three ships out there for the 400th anniversary,” he said.
Pains are taken to create an authentic atmosphere and engaging learning experience for visitors when they come aboard.
The recreation of the Godspeed was commissioned in 2006 and replaced another vessel that had been built in the early 1980s. All three ships are designed according to period naval treatises and likenesses of ships of the era.
The trio of original ships ferried 105 passengers and 39 crewmen on a voyage that lasted about four months. The ships left England in December 1606 and arrived where Jamestown would be established in May 1607 after two weeks of waterway exploration on the Virginia coast.
The Godspeed and the Susan Constant left Jamestown the following month, while Discovery stayed behind for use by colonists. The General Assembly has designated the recreations as the official fleet of the Commonwealth.
The recreated ships and the men and women who tell their stories provide a key chapter in the book of Jamestown’s history by putting modern audiences in the shoes of colonists.
“(Visitors) want to understand through their own life what life was like on board. It’s not enough to talk numbers and lengths of voyages,” Moseley said. “You put it in perspective. One hundred and forty-four days? That’s a long time, but it’s like I tell people, 400 years from now when they beam you from one place to another, eight hours on an airplane is going to seem like an eternity.”
Just as the ships put into perspective the process of getting from point A to point B in the 17th century, they also provide a window into the lengths people were willing to go to improve their fortunes. And while transportation methods may change, the human willingness to journey long and hard for a better life has not.
“Those kinds of things haven’t changed throughout history. People want to better their lives,” he said. “They want a better life for themselves and a better life for their children and seek opportunity. That’s what these people were doing when they came to Virginia in 1607.”
Jack Jacobs, 757-298-6007, email@example.com, @jajacobs_