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The Mayflower at Sea — 1620

By Joseph Edgar Sherman, Jr., Past Governor, SMDSC

The Mayflower leaving English shores. Painting by Mike HaywoodThe Ship Mayflower, with 102 Pilgrims aboard, plowed through the waves of the North Atlantic in the fall of 1620. On all sailing ships, the bow bangs against, and slices through, the large oncoming waves, as the sails driver her forward, The shape of her bow is like a plowshare tilling the earth except, instead of earth churning away, a bow spray develops and sprays up high and over the deck of the ship, even in sunny weather. This particular spray was chilled by the fall temperatures in the open ocean and as it fell on the huddled passengers, it felt like a constant rain. People traveling by sea in those days felt it was the very worst place on earth to be, for they became prisoners on the ship until it made landfall. To keep dry they huddled under oilcloths, which were cloth blankets mostly cut from old sails, coated with an oil or grease and draped over the body. Some slept in these.

The nights were cold and there were no lights to be seen — anywhere. There were no lights on the ship because it would destroy the night vision of the navigator who was constantly watching a star — possibly the same North star we see today (Polaris), to which the Big Dipper points.

The passengers were at the mercy of the Mayflower's crew, the weather, the ship and themselves. Through all this they kept their faith in God and truly believed He would deliver them safely to their new life ashore — in "Virginia." God did just that!

The great Gulf Stream can be one of the most uncomfortable areas on the oceans of the world. The Gulf Stream is a strong current which runs from South to North in the Atlantic Ocean. It is like a great river. The Mayflower, with passengers, made their way across this current on an easterly heading toward Cape Cod Bay. The description of a wind direction is determined by the direction from which it blows while the description of a current's direction is determined by the direction to which it flows. The Gulf Stream is a Northerly current. Often, in the great Atlantic Ocean, the winds are Northerly or Nor'easters. For a ship sailing in such conditions, the going gets very rough because the course of the ship is parallel to the waves. When there are waves of this magnitude, it is best to sail at an angle and into the waves

After they had enjoyed fair winds and weather for a season, they were encountered many times with cross winds, and met with many fierce storms, which the ship shroudly shaken, and her upper works made very leaky; and one of the main beams in the mid ships was bowed and cracked, which put them in some fear that the ship could not be able to perform the voyage.

They were encountered many times with crosswinds. Painting by Mike HaywoodWhen a wind is blowing against an oncoming current, normal sea chop becomes breaking waves with stronger winds blowing the tops off the waves in white blankets while the sea tosses and turns causing a ship to do the same. The Mayflower in such conditions was very uncomfortable and seasickness would be a problem for almost everyone. There were men, women and children Pilgrims aboard. There was no relief from the heaving of the ship and no relief from its wet prison. Eating, sleeping, faith and other human necessities became challenges. About the only thing the Mayflower passengers could do was pray. They probably prayed loudly, both alone and in groups. God heard their prayers and they were thankful. So are we.

During the fall season of 1620 the Mayflower was reaching hard for land loaded with 102 passengers. The Mayflower was a cargo ship. Cargo ships do not have places to sleep. The space within a cargo ship is like a warehouse and is used to stow the heavy weight of cargo such as lumber. The weight (ballast) down low gave the ship "stability" and helped resist leaning over due to the force of the wind. On this trip the passengers and their belongings were the ballast.

The Mayflower battered by Atlantic storms. Painting by Mike HaywoodAll ships, including the rough, old Mayflower, have a right-hand side and a left-hand side. As one faces the bow of the ship (the pointy end which moves forward), the side of the ship which is to your right is called the "starboard" side. The side of the ship to your left is called the "port" side. This designation came about because the ship's rudder was once called a "steer board." The "steer board" was always on the right side of the ship as one faced the bow. When the ship docked in port, they could not dock with the "steer board" next to the pier so they docked with the other side next to the pier. The other side (which lay against the pier) became know as the "port" side. Somehow "steer board" became "Starboard."

Like other ships, the Mayflower had a bow; a stern; a port side and starboard side. As the Mayflower made her way west towards "Virginia," the wind was usually hitting the starboard side (from a northerly direction). As this north wind made contact with her sails, the Mayflower would heel (lean over) to port (to the left). This meant the deck was at an angle to the surface of the earth and the Pilgrim passengers, even if they were giving birth, had to adjust to this angle of the ship's leaning or "heel." More than likely, the Pilgrims, and all their belongings, remained in the cargo bay which gave the ship added weight to help counterbalance the high winds to increase stability.

The dramatic rescue of John Howland during the voyage of the Mayflower. Painting by Mike HaywoodStand in the living area of your home and look at the light switch. Then imagine: if somehow, the light-switch side of the floor, upon which you stand, is suddenly elevated to the position of the light switch (heeling) while the other side of the floor dips lower than it is. Then imagine yourself trying to stand up straight when that (sloping) happens. Consider that circumstance, which lasted for days on the Mayflower, and then consider the waves causing the bow to fall down in troughs and the stern to rise at the same time. Imagine trying to eat! Imagine trying to give birth! Imagine trying to pray!

After fifty-five days the Mayflower Pilgrim passengers were trying to continue surviving in their cold and wet cargo-ship prison. They were headed for freedom.

"Highway" markers do not exist at sea. There are no center lines to follow and no one to stop and ask directions. A ship uses a compass to reach a destination. There are 360 degree marks, or points, on a compass. The points of the compass places due north at 000 (or 360) degrees, due east at 090 degrees, due south at 180 degrees and due west at 270 degrees. When the Mayflower departed the docks at Southampton, England on 6 September 1620, the initial heading was approximately 287 degrees, headed for the Hudson River, which was in a west northwesterly direction. The northerly Gulf Stream currents caused the ship to drift sideways and to the North as she slowly sloshed along, sailing from east to west.

The Mayflower in the riptide and shallows off Monomoy Point, Cape Cod. Painting by Mike HaywoodThe distance from the departure point in Southampton, England to Boston, MA, is 3236 statute miles (equal to 2812 nautical miles). The entire sea journey for the Pilgrims took 66 days. There are 1584 hours in 66 days. The ship, therefore traveled at a speed of 2 miles an hour. An average person can walk 4 miles an hour. Distance at sea is designated in nautical miles. One nautical mile is approximately 1 1/2 statute miles. Sea speed is designated in knots. One knot equals 1 nautical mile per hour. Using sea terms, the average speed of the Mayflower, traveling across the cold, wet Atlantic, was 1.77 knots.

After 55 days people were tired, cold and sick. A baby was born in the dark hold of the ship and the infant was somehow kept alive. Tempers were short and food was scarce. Fresh drinking water was almost gone and had to be rationed. There were 11 more days at sea but they did not know that. Everyone prayed. The sailed on, towards freedom.

The above first appeared in The Mayflower Quarterly, Vol. 69, No, 4, December 2003 The quote is from Chapter IX of Governor William Bradford's history Of Plimoth Plantation. Mr. Sherman is a descendant of the Pilgrim Elder William Brewster.