Setting Sail for the Past

(By Bill O'Leary -- The Washington Post)
By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 22, 2007

JAMESTOWN, Va. -- "Let's lay aloft and loose all sails!"

This sends Susan Harris clambering up the rigging that stretches like a giant spiderweb from the deck almost to the top of the ship's 72-foot mast.

Hand over sneaker she goes to the yardarm, then inches oh-so-carefully sideways until she is standing on a thin rope five stories above the James River. Cord by cord, Harris loosens the mainsail until the great white sheet bellies out with the breeze.

Off it goes, the Godspeed, borne by the wind into another time, 400 years ago.

"I just love it up there," Harris says back on deck. She is no younker, as the young seamen who climbed the rigging were known long ago. At 59, Harris is a new grandmother.

The former ice skating instructor from Williamsburg is one of 60 volunteer sailors who are re-creating the majestic voyage of three tall-masted ships to mark the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English colony in the New World.

By Thursday, the Godspeed and two other 17th-century reproductions will set sail to Cape Henry, off Virginia Beach, to commemorate the colonists' landfall there April 26, 1607. The Godspeed will then embark on a month-long Journey Up the James, visiting Hampton, Newport News and Claremont before returning here for Anniversary Weekend, a multimillion-dollar celebration from May 11 to 13. Afterward, the journey will continue to Henricus and Richmond. Each stop will feature tours of the ship.

One thing is certain: This trip will be easier than the first one.

Although the three original ships -- the Godspeed, the Susan Constant and the Discovery -- are nowhere near as famous as Christopher Columbus's Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, their trip was just as harrowing and its impact nearly as profound.

Crammed inside their holds were 105 men and boys, colonists betting they would find gold on the other side of the world. Two-thirds would be dead before year's end. But those who survived and followed, most poor, would transform the Tidewater region into the birthplace of a nation.

They set off from England in December 1606 on merchant ships built to haul cargo, not people. The biggest, the Susan Constant, was about the length of two mobile homes.

In those days, when transatlantic crossings were like moonshots, mariners were lucky to know exactly where they were, and their vessels were at the mercy of the weather. Passengers had little opportunity to go above deck for fresh air, as there was hardly enough room for the crew. The passengers slept two to a bunk and, when not fighting, they passed the time singing, reading or praying.

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