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What The...: Life aboard the Mayflower

As the repaired and refurbished Mayflower II plies the seas off New London, let us remember her ancestor, the one that brought 102 immigrants from Plymouth to Plymouth in 1620.

The Mayflower was a “high-pooped pot-bellied merchantman.” That’s about all we know about her. Her descendant was built on conjecture and surmise.

Her pot-belly was a midriff bulge at her waterline. It kept her from rocking too much in calm waters. It also kept her from slicing through the water. When she sailed, she lurched forward a few feet, then settled down, then lurched again.

On Aug. 15, two Pilgrim ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell, shoved off from Southampton. Within 300 miles, it became apparent that the Speedwell had been poorly named. The only thing she did well was leak.

The ships returned to Dartmouth (at the mouth of the River Dart) for repairs. Then they tried again. Same problem.

They went back, putting in at Plymouth, where it was decided that the Speedwell would never make it across the Atlantic.

Goods and passengers were shuffled over to the Mayflower and packed in tight. The 102 passengers were berthed on the gun deck, a dark, low space between the main deck and the hold.

They shared about 1,800 square feet with a 30-foot boat, at least a couple of cannons, piles of carry-on luggage, bilge pumps, spare parts, the base of the masts, the capstan, a couple of dogs and a few small farm animals. With pathways kept clear for crew, each passenger was left with less than the space of a single bed.

On Sept. 16, they lurched westward into hurricane season. They enjoyed a few days of “prosperous winds,” but then things turned rough with “boisterous storms.”

A boisterous storm could tilt the ship across an arc of 90 degrees in a matter of seconds. Waves lifted and dropped the ship by 80 feet or more. As waves washed across the deck, water trickled down on the passengers.

In the windowless space, the passengers could not align their balance with the horizon. Seasickness overwhelmed them. We can only imagine the scene as they heaved up pea porridge, oatmeal, beer-soaked biscuits and bits of salted cod.

The closest thing to a bathroom was the “head,” an enclosed space at water-level up at the bow. It had a slatted floor so waves could gush up and wash away the waste. (This was not the poop deck. The poop deck was the roof above the captain’s quarters at the stern.)

Three passengers were pregnant. One gave birth and named her baby Oceanus. His first meal probably tasted of seawater.

At one point a wave punched the Mayflower so hard that a stout oak beam snapped as loud as a rifle shot. This beam held the main deck up and the hull out. Within a few moments another wave might finish the job.

As the ship rose and fell and tossed side to side, water poured in and men scrambled in the dark to find a house jack. Miraculously, they managed to secure the beam.

Master Jones owned and commanded the ship as it tacked into the westerlies. His navigation instruments were no more than a magnetized sliver of iron, a jar of sand, a couple of sticks with marked measurements, and a long piece of rope. His progress, lurch after lurch, was about two miles per hour.

Jones was aiming at someplace just south of the Hudson, the northern edge of Virginia. On Nov. 19, someone high in the rigging probably shouted “Land ho!” as they sighted Cape Cod. It was a close miss, just half of one degree north of the Hudson.

It was close enough for the passengers. For reasons no one knows, they decided to disembark there rather than in Virginia, where they had permission to settle. On Nov. 21, the Mayflower dropped anchor inside the curl of the cape.

Thus ended the easy part of the trip. It was too late to plant crops or dig the frozen soil Also too late for a ship to cross the Atlantic. The passengers spent the winter in their dank gun deck space. By spring, almost half had died of disease.

On April 15, the Mayflower sailed out of Plymouth Harbor. All the Pilgrims remained. If there was a moment they became Americans, that was it.

Glenn Alan Cheney is a writer, translator, and author of “Thanksgiving: The Pilgrims’ First Year in America.” He can be reached at


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