Voyage of the Sailing Vessel Godspeed

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1985 Voyage of the Sailing Vessel Godspeed: The Re-creation of the 1606 English Voyage to Colonize America

By Michael E. Brookman, 2nd Mate, SV Godspeed, 1985 Voyage Crew

In the Autumn 2015 edition of the Greenwich Yacht Club newsletter there is a short article thanking Greenwich Yacht Club for presenting a burgee and a note to the crew of the Godspeed at the start of her journey from London to Virginia in October 1985. This is Michael Brookman's record of the journey. pic of the note given to the crewThe Note given to the crew of Godspeed

It all began for me in 1984. The State of Virginia had constructed a replica of one of the sailing ships that brought English colonists to America in 1607. The idea was to sail it across the Atlantic Ocean from London to Jamestown to commemorate English settlement in America.

Constructed of wood with no engine for propulsion the Godspeed was 86 ft long with a 15 ft beam, a 7 ft draft weighing 40 tons displacement with 1200 ft of sail. The replica was built at Jamestown , Virginia. At the time I was an employee of Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company. This is a very large shipyard about 20 miles down the James River from Jamestown near the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. This is where nuclear powered aircraft carriers and submarines are built for the US Navy. I first saw the ship when it arrived at pier 2 to complete some internal work and install ballast covers. The Godspeed looked so small next to the massive ships it was tied up next to. The new crewmembers inspected the ship for the first time before it was towed to a small boatyard on the York River for completion.

The Godspeed was launched and was christening in Nov 1984 at the dock under the York River Bridge in Yorktown, Virginia. The crew met regularly to discuss sail training and planning the voyage. We spent weekends in the fall sailing the ship in the York River. In January 1985 the sails and rigging were removed and the masts were lashed to the deck. In February the Godspeed was towed to Norfolk International Terminal to await transport to England as cargo. On 2 March 1985 the container ship Stuttgart Express left for England with the Godspeed safely aboard. It arrived at Felixstowe on 12 March 1985. The ship was re-rigged and did a shakedown cruise.

By the time I arrived in in London on 24 April 1985 the Godspeed was tied up in the Central Basin at St. Catherine Dock near Tower Bridge. Many visitors viewed the ship while it was there. We had a few Londoners who helped us in readying the ship.

Next the Godspeed was moved to the London Docklands on the Isle of Dogs near a new section of luxury apartments called Jamestown Harbour. We stayed moored here a day or two. The crew was honored with a banquet at the Hatfield House on the last night in London.

Departure day was 30 April. We went back through the locks into the Thames Estuary to a prepositioned barge across from the Cutty Sark. This is when the Greenwich Yacht Club burgee was presented to me (see the article in GYC's newsletter Trident Autumn 2015). We were honored by a visit of His Royal Highness Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. We were also symbolically towed a short distance by two small rowboats. After all the fanfare of being seen off by hundreds of people we were taken under tow by the tugboat Sun II. We were finally on our way. It was great being in London but we were all happy to be headed to sea.

The tow watch was set and we proceeded to the mouth of the Thames. Most everyone spent the night sitting up with the watch taking it all in. The tow continued through the night. We passed Kingsgate on the starboard side, through the Straights of Dover and into the English Channel. On past Dover and Dungeness and Eastbourne.

pic of Michael Brookman aboard Godspeed in the English ChannelMichael Brookman aboard Godspeed in the English Channel

It was 1 May. We were making good time under tow by Sun II moving at about 15 knots. Dawn brought the beginnings of a beautiful day. However, around noon the head winds picked up and 4 ft swells caused us to take a pounding on the bow. Seams opened up under the catheads and the hawse pipe plugs were leaking badly. And portions of the grating under the bowsprit had carried away. The ship shook hard as it dove into each oncoming swell. Jack Greer, our cook, and Maurice Duke, our photojournalist, were bunked in the forecastle. This is also where the galley was. Everything they had was soaked with seawater. And it was impossible to make hot food. We were rounding Beachy Head when we radioed the Sun II to have them reduce speed to ease the battering. Because we were taking on water and the motion of the ship under tow was so severe Capt Salley decided to put into Newhaven to make repairs and give the crew some rest. The approach channel to New Haven continued to be very rough. So rough that the Pilot Boat from Newhaven heaved so wildly against the Sun II that the Pilot could not make the leap aboard. As we entered the harbor the swells and wind subsided and we were able to enter. It was dusk before we finally moored at the Customs Dock.

2 May. Both vessels were tied up on the east side of the harbour in Newhaven . I was amazed at the 20 ft tide range in the harbor. We spent the day repairing the damage and re-calking the seams. We brought aboard a few more provisions and re-lashed loose deck items. The crew was supposed to stay in the customs quarantine area while in Newhaven. However, at the end of the day we were permitted to frequent a small pub near the dock.

3 May. At 6am we castoff our moorings and returned to tow configuration. The weather had moderated and all was going well. The wind was still on the bow which necessitated us to continue under tow to the east of the Isle of Wight. We slipped the towline, dropped anchor and said goodbye to the Sun II. We remained at anchor overnight hoping for more favorable winds in the morning.

4 May. Dawn arrived and the wind had not improved. Capt Salley gave the order to get underway and to sail in a southeasterly direction into the channel in hopes of a favorable wind shift. We brought up the anchor and crowded on all the sail we could and hauled in tight on the starboard tack. We were moving well but were headed directly across the Channel towards the French Cherbourg Peninsula. As hard as we tried we could not sail in a more westerly direction because of the wind. The best we could do was to tack back and forth across the Channel. At times the wind would die off to a whisper. Then within a few hours whitecaps would form and a 30 knot wind would howl through the rigging requiring us to shorten sail. The cold and the motion of the ship prevented me from sleeping in my bunk. I bundled up fully clothed and slept on the deck of the main cabin.

We did this for a week before the wind finally shifted around. This setback greatly affected the morale of the crew. During our time in the Channel, particularly at night, the watch kept a sharp lookout as we headed through the most heavily trafficked sea lanes in the world. At times visibility was limited to only a few miles. We had a small handheld device which gave us bearings to other ships that were using their radar. Being a sailing vessel made of wood we were concerned that these huge ships would not see us even with an oversized radar reflector at the masthead.

14 May. The wind finally shifted allowing us to proceed toward the Atlantic . This lifted our spirits. I remember a particular impressive phenomenon on this night. It was about 21:00. Two bells had just rung. We were making about 6 knots off Plymouth. The sea was very smooth with no visible moon. As we glided through the water spots of glowing phosphorescence started appearing in the water ahead of us. They were about 3 ft across and were spaced out as far as we could see. They seemed to be welling up to the surface as we floated through them. This lasted for several hours. Fascinating!

15 May. We were now in the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the English Channel. The wind had completely died away. Since we had no engine for propulsion we were under the same mercies of the sea like those who made this voyage 300 years ago. The sails hung limply from the yards as we rode over 15 ft ocean swells. Pete Mekins, the Sailing Master, was maintaining his position at the helm while reading a novel. With nothing to do a rousing game of Trivial Pursuit was played on the main hatch. Someone rigged a makeshift basketball goal under the clewed-up mainsail and we took turns taking shots from the forecastle with a big wad of tape. A fishing trawler spotted us and came over to take a look circling us several times. They gave us some large crabs before they left headed to the northeast.

And so it went. We settled into the daily shipboard routine of on-watch and off-watch. Living in foul weather gear. Meals eaten in the open on main deck. Coffee served from the hatch at the forecastle. The sea was always speaking to us. The wind whistling through the rigging. The water rushing past the bow as we sliced through the sea. The creaking and groaning of the ship as the sails strained the backstays. The feel of the surging and rolling of ship. The ship’s bell being rung every 30 minutes. This is the voice of adventure at sea.

19 May. At our current speed it will take about 2 weeks to reach Tenerife. We practice man overboard drills regularly. This was a concern for us as we cannot turn the ship around. We can only heave-to and put over the boat to row back and make a recovery. I had some of the sharpest eyesight of the crew. At the alarm I sprang aloft to spot the man and to continue pointing it that direction until recovery. I was amazed how quickly an object in the water could be lost from sight. Sometimes only 5 lengths of the ship or less. We lost a life ring during one drill. It disappeared in the swells and was never see again. A reminder to be carful when aloft.

22 May. We have traveled 100 NM in the last 24 hours doing about 5 knots. We are off the lower end of the Bay of Biscay. The winds have shifted again causing us to head deeper in to the Bay of Biscay. We had to come about and head to the west out into the Atlantic for fear of getting trapped with land to our lee.

25 May. This was a very rough day. The sky was an angry gray and it rained quite hard. The sea had swells of 10 to 15 feet with whitecaps and foam blowing in 40 knot force 8 winds. The ship rolled 30 degrees or more from side to side. Only the foresail without its bonnet and the main topsail are set. We brought in the mainsail and mizzen earlier. We continue to be forced to a westerly direction. Lifelines and harnesses are mandatory when on deck. This was a very difficult time for some members of the crew. It took a heavy toll on them.

1 June. We are about 250 NM from Tenerife. We have been at sea for the entire month of May. The winds continue to be light and sporadic. Chafe was getting to be a problem with the sails rubbing against the rigging. We began producing baggywrinkle and tied it to the problem areas. Soon the ship looked like it was being taken over by Spanish moss.

4 June. We are now about 150 NM out from Tenerife . We discovered another phenomenon of the sea. Just as the sun would disappear over the horizon to the west the last half second of light from the sun would flash green. We were amazed by this. We saw this many more times during the voyage.

6 June. We sighted the Canary Islands for the first time at noon today. We were expecting to see the island low on the horizon. We were surprised to see the top of the island sticking above the clouds about 80 miles away. We were a lot closer than we thought. We broke out in cheers and laughter.

7 June. We arrive at the island of Tenerife. Huge mountains of green vegetation covered the lava flows that rose from the ocean. The Tugboat San Antonio took us under tow to hurry our port arrival in Santa Cruz. We tied up at the South Dock and were met by customs and support staff who had flown in from Virginia.

Godspeed crew touring the island of TenerifeGodspeed crew touring the island of Tenerife

We spent 6 days shore leave in Tenerife. We began getting reorganized to continue the voyage. Two of the crew decided to leave the ship and flew back to Virginia . They were replaced by Doug Steele.

12 June. We departed the Canary Islands. We looked like an island trader with all the fresh fruit and other supplies stacked on deck. Again we settled into our shipboard routine. The weather was much warmer and the winds more constant now the further south we traveled to the trade winds. Dolphins frequently swam at the cutwater under the bowsprit. Quite a few flying fish came crashing aboard day and night. The night sky was so clear you could see satellites passing overhead. Not much need for the bulky foul weather gear now. We are able to average 100 NM on some days.

21 June. Because of our slow progress Capt Salley has decided to bypass the lower islands and head directly to St Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Some of the crew were disappointed by this decision. But, it was the right thing do to. The length and slow pace of voyage has been a strain on all of us. Our other land-lives were needing us.

27 June. During this 24-hour period we traveled 146 NM. That’s an average speed of 7 knots. That’s a record days run. The days were running together now. We were on a constant starboard tack with the winds of the quarter. The sails were balanced well and the ship would sail herself. The water was a clear aqua blue allowing fish to be seen many feet below. The steady warm trade winds were so pleasant.

pic of Michael Brookman aboard Godspeed in the Atlantic OceanMichael Brookman aboard Godspeed in the Atlantic Ocean

As we sailed across the Atlantic the crew began to have concerns about the impending hurricane threat on the East Coast of the United States. Progress being so slow there was a chance the ship might be in danger on the final leg of the voyage. After much discussion it was possible that the voyage might be suspended at St Thomas.

13 July. We arrive at St Thomas. It has been 71 days since departing London. And we are so far behind schedule.

pic of Michael Brookman aboard Godspeed at St ThomasMichael Brookman aboard Godspeed at St Thomas

The crew had a meeting a few days later. It was decided by the Virginian Jamestown Foundation, the owners of the Godspeed, to suspend the remainder of the voyage because of the hurricane threat. Some of the crew were very unhappy about this. But most felt it was the right thing to do. This voyage had been a lot longer and harder than anyone imagined.

Most of the crew flew back to Virginia. A few remained to sail the ship to Puerto Rico. One remained behind to care for the ship. The others flew back to Virginia.

18 Sept. After a month in Puerto Rico the Godspeed left with another crew to bring the ship the rest of the way back to Virginia. I was not on this portion of the trip. It proved to be the most harrowing and dangerous portion of the entire voyage. The hurricane danger never materialized. What did occur were severe storms that came close to driving the ship onto the Outer Banks of North Carolina in an area known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Twice the US Coast Guard had to be called to take the Godspeed under tow to prevent her from grounding and becoming a total loss. It’s estimated that over the years 2,000 ships have been lost in this area. Once out of danger the Godspeed was towed the rest of the way back to Jamestown to bring the trip to a close.

This was quite an adventure for me. Maybe it did not turnout like it was intended. But, I’m glad I was given the opportunity to do so. I have formed solid bonds with those I sailed with. The 1985 voyage Godspeed has since been replaced with a new ship that is equipped with an engine.

I am honored by your interest in the voyage. Fair winds and following seas to all at the Greenwich Yacht Club.

Michael Brookman, 2nd Mate, SV Godspeed 1985 Voyage crew

"The anchor heaves, the ship swings free, The sails swell full. To sea, to sea!", Thomas Lovell Beddoes