The Four Lives of the GODSPEED


The Elks Magazine - March 2009

    WHEN Bartholomew Gosnold sailed from London aboard the square-rigger Godspeed in December 1606, he could not have known that this ship, one of three to carry a group of intrepid English settlers to Virginia, would rise from the pages of history to sail again centuries later.
    Gosnold had been to the New World before.  In 1602, he led an expedition of thirty-two men to New England, where he discovered sites he subsequently named Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard.  But the settlements he attempted to start there did not take root, and after returning to England, Gosnold planned a more ambitious undertaking.  In April 1606, he was instrumental in securing a charter from King James I to form the Virginia Company of London, a joint stock corporation organized for the purpose of settling Virginia.
    His first priority was to obtain a fleet of ships for the venture.  In the fall and winter of 1601-1602, the shipping list of the port of London logged 712 ships as having entered the port.  By the fall of 1606, however, when English merchant vessels were being converted to privateers or sent on long trading voyages, a limited selection of ships was available.  Fewer than sixty ships lay at anchor on the Thames River, and many of these were under contract to trading organizations such as the East India Company.  A newly built vessel, the Susan Constant was finally chosen as the flagship for the Virginia enterprise, in which capacity she would carry most of the passengers.  The Susan Constant would be supported by the pinnace Discovery and the bark Godspeed, smaller ships that would carry most of the settlers' stores and thus fewer passengers.
    On December 20, 1606, the Godspeed, the Susan Constant, and the Discovery slipped free of their Blackwall berths, just downriver from central London, and moved out into the busy Thames shipping lanes to begin their voyage to Virginia.

The First Transatlantic Voyage
    In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, records useful for determining the dimensions and tonnage of smaller ships like the Godspeed were practically nonexistent, although it is known that vessels of forty to sixty tons were commonly used by the English for purposes of exploration.  Period design manuals and the pieces of written information that are available-such as Captain John Smith's journal entry indicating that the Godspeed could carry forty tons of cargo and passengers-have led researchers to conclude that the Godspeed was approximately sixty-eight feet long and fifteen feet wide at her beam.  At that size, the vessel was a mere speck on the surface of the mighty Atlantic Ocean.
    Bartholomew Gosnold was the Godspeed's captain for the voyage to the New World.  He was in his mid-thirties and was the father of several young children at the time the Godspeed left London.  He would not see his family again.  In August 1607, only four months after landing in the New World, Bartholomew Gosnold died of dysentery and scurvy.
    The Atlantic crossing had been fraught with capricious winds, as well as sickness and dissension onboard, and bad required all the fortitude the vessel's thirteen crewmen and thirty nine passengers could muster.  Above all, the Godspeed and her companion ships needed wind to fill their sails.  They had captured the prized trade winds by sailing south to the Canary Islands, then southwest into the Caribbean.  It was a long, circuitous route, but in April 1607, five months after leaving England, the Godspeed and her sister ships arrived at what would become the first permanent English settlement in the New World—Jamestown, Virginia.
    Leaving the Discovery for the settlers' use, Christopher Newport, the captain of the Susan Constant, took both his vessel and the Godspeed back to England, where in late June 1607, he gave the Virginia Company a progress report on the Jamestown colony and a list of items that would be needed to keep the fledgling colony going.  The Susan Constant was eventually used as a collier, or merchantman, on the English coasts.   But after the Godspeed left the service of the Virginia Company, her fate was unknown; she simply vanished into the shadows of the seventeenth century.

Modern Interest in the Settlers and Their Vessels
    Because it was the first capital of Virginia, Jamestown was designated a National Historical Site by the US government in 1940.  Six years later, the General Assembly of Virginia created the Virginia First Settlers Commission, which was asked to find an artist to create a painting of the early colonists' vessels.  The commission looked for an artist who would do the research needed to depict the three ships as accurately as possible.   Ultimately they awarded a contract to Commander Griffith Baily Coale, USNR, an artist who had served as a combat artist in the Naval Reserve during World War II.   Eighteen months after he was given the contract, Commander Coale finished his huge painting of the Susan Constant, the Discovery, and the Godspeed.  The painting was hung in the Virginia State Capitol in 1949.
    The Commonwealth's interest in the colonists' ships took a significant turn when, in 1952, the Virginia General Assembly established the Virginia 350th Anniversary Celebration Commission.   This group approved the construction of full-sized recreations of the three vessels, albeit with several stipulations: the appearance of the ships had to match the appearance of the ships as they were depicted in Commander Coale's 1949 painting; each vessel had to be stable enough to prevent capsizing even if all of its visitors rushed to one side of the ship; and each vessel had to be as seaworthy as the original 1607 ships were.
    In 1957, when the Commonwealth of Virginia celebrated the 350th anniversary of the Colonists' landing at Jamestown, the replica ships were a huge draw for hundreds of thousands of visitors —including Queen Elizabeth II— who came to Jamestown Festival Park to commemorate the founding of America.   Moored at their James River pier just west of the original landing site, the newly constructed Susan Constant, Discovery, and Godspeed began a renewed existence during which they would be seen, touched, and toured by millions of people.

A Third Life
    The ships remained moored in the James River after the 350th anniversary celebrations of 1957.  But by the late 1970s, it became apparent that the aging vessels needed renovations.  The Susan Constant underwent extensive rebuilding, but it was decided that new models of both the Discovery and the Godspeed should be constructed.  In the case of the Godspeed, the first item of business was to locate the correct type of wood for the ship's timbers: long-leaf yellow pine.  Fortunately, a sufficient quantity was found growing in a forest near the Georgia-Florida border.  The ship's keel was cut from the heart of the trees and a keel-laying ceremony was held on May 14, 1982, the 376th anniversary of the founding of the original Jamestown settlement.  Virginia's First Lady, Lynda J. Robb, officiated as the Godspeed's sponsor, driving home a ceremonial spike and announcing to the crowd of onlookers that the keel was "fairly and truly laid."
    Today, wooden sailing ships are built much the same way as they were four hundred years ago—with painstaking craftsmanship.  And during the construction begun in 1982, handcrafted detail was readily apparent.  Each rib of the Godspeed's hull was curved differently from all the others.  There were few straight lines anywhere.  The curves of the planks needed to follow the grain; yet the joining of the planks had to be even and the seams tight.  Thousands of wooden plugs were used as fasteners and covered with sealant.  Altogether, the work took more than seven months, sometimes with as many as twelve men working at one time.
    For her final outfitting, the Godspeed was sent to the shipyard at Newport News Shipbuilding.  Her interior accommodations were completed at the shipyard and her sails and operating rigging were installed.  At a length of sixty-eight feet and a width of fourteen feet, eight inches, she was a small ship, but she carried over 1,100 feet of sails made of a synthetic material created in Scotland that resembled the flax that would have been used for the sails of the original Godspeed in the seventeenth century.  Her configuration was uncomplicated: the forecabin became the galley and the aftcabin became the living area and bedroom combined.  Two and a half feet below the main deck was the 'tween deck, and four feet below that was the cargo hold, where the electrical generator, water storage tanks, and lead ballast were placed.
    On a foggy morning in October 1984, the ship performed her first sea trial, sailing in Hampton Roads.  She was pronounced sound, stable, and seaworthy: the Godspeed's third life was under way.

A New Atlantic Voyage
    The idea of the new Godspeed duplicating her namesake's 1607 journey from England to Virginia was conceived while the ship was still under construction at Jamestown Festival Park.  English support was enthusiastically provided by John G. Mosesson, owner of the historic Gosnold estate at Otley Hall, near Ipswich, England.  He, in turn, enlisted the help of Lord Tollemache, a descendant of Gosnold, who raised Financial support to accommodate the ship and its crew while they were in England.
    On February 28, 1985, with her sails, rigging, and masts removed and numbered for easy reassembly, the Godspeed was shipped by freighter to England.  After being reassembled in Harwich Harbour, the Godspeed was taken to St. Katherine's Dock across from the Tower of London, in view of the great Tower Bridge from which thousands of passersby could see her.  Meanwhile, Godspeed's thirteen crewmen —all Virginians— worked round the clock to prepare the vessel for her 7,000-mile voyage.
    On the morning of April 30, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, came aboard to meet the crew and wish them well.  He was joined by Lord Tollemache, the governor of Virginia, and the governor's wife.  When the visitors disembarked, the cannon at the Naval College in Greenwich sounded a farewell.  The Godspeed left the dock at 10:45 a.m., and, in order to navigate the heavy traffic of both the Thames and the English Channel, was towed as far as the Isle of Wight.  It was here that adverse weather began to slow the ship's progress across the Atlantic.  Strong westerly winds and currents meant that the ship didn't pass Land's End, England, until May 12.  Once the Godspeed was on the open sea, prevailing light winds slowed her progress.  But on June 7, she made port at Puerto de la Cruz, Tenerife, having sailed 3,300 statute miles from London.
    Repaired and reprovisioned, the Godspeed set sail for the Caribbean on June 12.  But when she reached the US Virgin Islands, the threat of hurricanes forced a layover of nearly a month at San Juan, Puerto Rico.  As the ship sailed up the eastern coast of the United States toward Virginia, she encountered gale-force winds and twenty-foot seas, which forced the captain to radio the US Coast Guard for help.  The weary crew finally allowed the Godspeed to be towed up the James River to Jamestown, where she was greeted by the family and friends of the crew, along with fans and members of the media.  It was the morning of October 22, 1985, and the Godspeed's 7,000 mile, five-and-a-half month odyssey was complete at last.

Rising from the Sawdust
    For the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown in 2007, a third reconstruction of the Godspeed was commissioned to replace her aging predecessor.  This reincarnation was designed with the intention of combining historical accuracy and greater durability.
    Although modern construction methods are faithful to those of the seventeenth century, the new ship was also built using the latest advances in wood technology for purposes of longevity and economical maintenance.  Her structural timbers were fashioned from angelique, a rot-resistant tropical hardwood from Surinam.  Other exotic timbers used included reddish-pink wana for the hull planking, and silverballi, often used as a teak substitute, for the decking.  The spars were made from Douglas fir and the blocks from black locust.  The sails and rigging were made of a synthetic material that simulates seventeenth-century fabrics.
    Eighty-eight feet long, and with a beam of seventeen feet, the new replica of the Godspeed is a "historical representation" of the original vessel.  In 2006 and 2007 she undertook an eighteen-month tour of various ports on the eastern coast of the United States to raise public awareness of the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown.  At the end of the trip, she returned to her rightful home, moored alongside replica vessels of the Discovery and the Susan Constant at the pier on the James River at Jamestown Settlement.
    For the Godspeed, now beginning her fourth life as an exhibit at the Jamestown Settlement, it has been a long and eventful journey through the centuries.  And one can't help but wonder if Bartholomew Gosnold were able to see the vessel today, would he recognize her?  We only know that those who have been part of the effort to create the Godspeed anew believe their ship's resemblance to the original is uncanny. •

  The square-rigger Godspeed first crossed the Atlantic in 1607 carrying settlers and supplies to Virginia.  (Shown is the third re-creation of the Godspeed.)

Bartholomew Gosnold, who chartered the Godspeed in 1606, had already visited the New World and met with Native Americans during a 1602 expedition.

The settlers who disembarked from the Godspeed and her sister ships in 1607 founded the first permanent English settlement in the New World -Jamestown, Virginia.

This painting of the Susan Constant, the Discovery and the Godspeed has hung in the Virginia State Capitol since 1949.   The artist was Commander Griffith Baily Coale, who created the work at the behest of the Virginia First Settlers Commission.

In 1957, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip toured a replica of the Susan Constant during the 350th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown.

In 1982, Virginia's first lady Lynda J. Robb presided at the keel-laying ceremony for the third incarnation of the Godspeed.

The third replica of the Godspeed was constructed in 2006 at Rockport, Maine, using both traditional and modern materials.
Today, wooden sailing ships are built much the same way as they were four hundred ago --with painstaking craftsmanship.  And during the construction begun in 1982, handcrafted detail was readily apparent.

Replicas of the Susan Constant, the Discovery and the Godspeed sailed the eastern seaboard of the United States as part of Jamestown's 400th anniversary celebrations in 2007.
Eighty-eight feet long, and with a beam of seventeen feet, the new replica of the Godspeed is a "historical representation" of the original vessel.


1607 --A Dangerous Year For John Smith

    John Smith is well known in American history as one of the original settlers of Jamestown.  What is less well known is that he sailed to Virginia on board the Susan Constant and that he was nearly killed twice within one year of leaving England.  The first time was while he was still on board the Susan Constant, when a disagreement with the ship's officers almost led to his being hanged.  The second time was at the end of 1607, eight months after the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery had arrived on the shores of Virginia.
    At first, local Native American tribes treated the English newcomers who had sailed into their midst with indifference.  Their powerful chief, Powhatan, felt that they would either die off or leave.  But as more ships arrived, Powhatan's willingness to trade with the settlers turned into hostility towards them.  After a period of skirmishes between the native Americans and the settlers, Powhatan's men ambushed and captured John Smith in December 1607.  Smith was paraded from village to village, and eventually presented to Powhatan.  According to Smith's perhaps exaggerated account, two of his captors placed his head on a stone and prepared "to beate out his braines" with clubs.  But Powhatan's daughter Pocahontas, who was about ten or eleven years old, lifted Smith's head "in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death: Whereat the Emperour was contented he should live."
    Powhatan freed Smith, and thus it was that John Smith survived death that year.





26 June 2006 - Replica of the Godspeed sails past the statue of Liberty.