A Great Adventure | Travel | Smithsonian

A Great Adventure

Terry Smith, author of "Beyond Jamestown," sailed in the 400-year-old wake of colonial explorer Capt. John Smith

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You mention that you've lived on the Chesapeake Bay for 30 years. How did you end up there?
I was working for the New York Times, and in 1977 I moved down to Washington from New York. The first thing I did was buy a boat and sail it on the Bay. That was exactly 30 years ago. And I've been quite taken with the Bay ever since.

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Have you noticed changes in that time?
More boats, more houses, more development. More people. But it's still a very beautiful place. And maybe that's its problem—it's so good-looking that it masks all that's wrong with it

Do you have a favorite spot on the Bay where you like to sail?
Lots of them. I live on the western shore, just south of Annapolis, and I keep a boat there, and a favorite sail is across to the eastern shore and up into the Wye River. There are wonderful anchorages up there, around Wye Island, very beautiful, very peaceful places, and some very good sailing in between. So that's a very favorite place.

How did you learn about John Smith's Chesapeake adventures?
Last year I realized that the 400th anniversary of the settlement at Jamestown was coming up. And that piqued my interest, so I started reading about Captain John Smith—who I like to think was my ancestor, although of course he wasn't, because he had no children that we know of. And I thought to myself, what a great story, particularly his explorations of the Chesapeake Bay. And wouldn't it be fun—and, I think, eye-opening—to recreate those journeys, or major portions of them. They estimate that he probably covered about 1700 miles over a four-month period. I ended up covering about 1000 miles over a four-week period. (Things are faster these days.) I found places that were very much as he found them and other places, like Baltimore Harbor, that are radically different. I also thought, wouldn't it be a fun way to explore regions of the Bay that I had never been to.

What was the coolest new place you discovered?
A particularly remarkable place was the Chickahominy River. It was a wonderful trip. It's just beyond Jamestown. If you go up the James River, you'll see there's a river on the right called the Chickahominy. So I went up in this boat, and it was so beautiful. There were remnants of the old cypress swamp, and great blue herons, and bald eagles—lots of them. It was just gorgeous, and essentially undeveloped. The lower part is a wildlife refuge. And it just was so beautiful. But we found lots of places like that.

What's the most surprising thing you learned about John Smith?
Well, I gather he was a difficult sort. He was strong and commanding and the kind of guy that you would like to have heading your voyage of exploration. But I doubt he was very easy to get along with. He was a very self-confident, cocky guy who seemed to do almost better with the Indians than he did with his fellow colonists. He was forever arguing with them. Still, his men were very loyal to him. So it was clear that they thought this guy could keep them alive and in one piece and complete the mission. And indeed he did, with the exception of one man, who did fall ill and die. So John Smith went 1700 miles through some really arduous circumstances—not only big storms and natural dangers but Indians who were forever firing arrows at them and whatnot. But nobody got hurt—the one man named Featherstone appears to have contracted some sort of infection, and he died and they buried him along the way. So they did incredibly well. And they were they eyes and ears of England, because the folks back in London had absolutely no sense of the Chesapeake Bay, of what it was and where it led. John Smith was out there finding out for them. And even if they weren't totally happy with what he found out—in other words, no gold and silver, no passage to the northwest—it was very valuable information nonetheless. He was quite a guy, and I think it's a terrific story. And you know, he was only 28 when he did this.

You may know from the article that there are some recreations of John Smith's boat, and one of them, the one built in Chestertown, Maryland, is going to take off on Saturday, May 12, and they're going to do a 121-day reenactment of his voyages. They've signed up a crew of 14, and they're going to do it by oar and by sail. That should be quite an adventure.

Have you seen this boat?
Yes, it's been on display in a number of locations. And let me tell you, it is the most uncomfortable-looking thing I've ever seen. They were tough guys. You can hardly imagine spending four months and traveling 1700 miles and very often sleeping on it. It's a completely open boat, there's no protection from the elements. And it looks heavy and slow. But it's a great adventure, and we'll see how that goes.

What are your thoughts on the prospects for the Bay?
Well, I'm very torn, because obviously the last 30 years especially have been destructive to the health of the Bay, to the oyster crop, which is down to a fraction, the crabs, the clarity of the Bay. Anybody with his eyes open has to be concerned. But I also think that the science is there—they know what to do, and there is greater awareness of the problems. They may be cautiously optimistic that some of the decline can be arrested. But there are estimates that it would cost $15 to 20 billion to do everything necessary to clean up the Bay, to improve the sewage plants and stop the storm water run-off and that sort of thing. I'm not so naïve as to believe that sort of money is just around the corner. But you have an enhanced and increased awareness of it, and in theory this Captain John Smith National Water Trail that's being created by the National Park Service will let people fall in love with the Bay the way I have over the last 30 years, and increase their concern for its well-being. We'll see, but I think it's a step in the right direction.

Where else have you been sailing? Is there any place else like the Chesapeake?
All around the world. I've sailed and cruised and raced my own boat to Bermuda. I usually cruise in the Caribbean every winter, and I've sailed off of Turkey and Vietnam—lots of places. There are wonderful places. I spent a week sailing off Cork in Ireland, and it was very beautiful, somewhat similar to the Chesapeake. But the Bay is my backyard, so I'm very partial to it.

About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Boston-based freelance journalist writing about government, education and ideas. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Slate, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe.

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