Beyond Jamestown

After the colony was founded, 400 years ago this month, Capt. John Smith set out to explore the riches of Chesapeake Bay. With Smith’s journals to guide him, a modern-day sailor retraces that historic voyage

The British colonists who settled a bit of land they soon named Jamestown (depicted in a 19th-century engraving) gave England its first enduring encampment in the New World--and, not incidentally, began our national narrative. (The Granger Collection)
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Most of the bay's current problems stem from that growth. Its waters are clouded with storm runoff, sediment and waste; its stocks of fish and shellfish have been depleted. Last year, scientists declared some 35 percent of the bay proper a "dead zone," with too little oxygen to support life.

In retracing much of Smith's route, I was not surprised to find places where the hand of man lay heavy on the landscape and the industrial roar never stopped. But I also found extraordinarily beautiful places that look today much as they must have when he first saw them.

Heading down the James with the current behind us, Solveig III, the elegant trawler owned by my friends John and Barbara Holum, was making good time. Refugees from the Democratic political wars, the Holums now live aboard their boat. As for me, I have sailed and lived on the Chesapeake for 30 years and must confess that, for all its problems, I am as besotted with it today as when I first saw it.

Standing on the foredeck, I could not imagine what John Smith would have made of the view. Mansions now stand along the James' hilly northern bank, and a ghostly fleet of mothballed Navy ships is moored mid-river. Huge aircraft carriers dock at the Norfolk Naval Base. Giant cranes loom like pterodactyls over the humming shipyards of Newport News.

In his day, Smith saw "a very goodly Bay...that may have the prerogative over the most pleasant places of Europe, Asia, Africa or America for large and pleasant navigable rivers," he wrote in A Map of Virginia, published in London in 1612. "Heaven and earth have never agreed better to frame a place for man's habitation."

Leaving the James, as Smith did, we crossed the bay's 18-mile-wide mouth to Virginia's lower Eastern Shore. With the Atlantic just to the east, the waves and breeze picked up sharply and we could smell the ocean. We were traveling in significantly greater comfort than Captain Jack, as we took to calling him.

He and his men explored in an ungainly 30-foot boat called a shallop. It had been built in England and shipped across the Atlantic in two sections in the hold of a larger ship. It was strong and heavy (a replica built for the 400th anniversary celebration weighs 5,000 pounds), powered by ten-foot oars or two sails, and steered by a big wooden rudder—in short, a clunker of the first order.

At 30 feet long and about 8 feet wide and entirely open to the weather, the shallop provided close quarters for 15 men who frequently slept aboard, lest they be attacked ashore. What's more, the captain and his quarrelsome crew often wore English woolens and armor as they rowed and sailed under the broiling Chesapeake sun. Many Englishmen of the time bathed once a year or so, believing it to be unhealthy. I suspect the Natives, who bathed daily, could smell them coming.

Captain Jack's first stop, and ours, was Cape Charles, where, he noted, "The first people we saw were two grim and stout savages...with long poles like javelins headed with bone. They boldly demanded what we were and what we would." The pair were apparently friendly Accomack Indians, and from them Smith learned that the cape was the tip of a peninsula, not the mainland, so he headed north up the bay in pursuit of his goals. As did we.

And just like Smith, we encountered a line of strong storms, with 30-knot winds and four- to five-foot seas. Solveig III handled the weather easily, but Captain Jack and his crew nearly foundered.


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