Jamestown, as we’re all taught in school, was the first permanent English settlement in North America. Settlers who arrived by boat in 1607 established the colony a couple miles from what we know today as Williamsburg, Virginia. Those earliest settlers struggled to survive; about two-thirds of them died before reinforcements arrived.
Far fewer of us were taught that in that same year, a second group of settlers made a go of it about 10 miles upriver from what we know today as Bath, Maine. Theirs was called the Popham Colony, and it lasted for about 14 months. It’s believed to have been a settlement of men and boys whose goal was to build a ship and explore the coast. Historians believe they gave up and left after experiencing one of the coldest winters on record.
“They decided, ‘Nope, we can’t do this.’ And they didn’t make good alliances with their neighbors. They didn’t use the land terribly well. They didn’t last,” says Kirstie Truluck, executive director of Maine’s First Ship. “They kind of said, ‘Well, we built this ship. Let’s take it home with us.’”
The ship they built was strong enough so that it would eventually return not only to England, but once again to the New World, carrying supplies to Jamestown. The Virginia was last referenced in 1610, sailing somewhere on the Chesapeake Bay, when it had already become what’s believed to be the first oceangoing English ship built in the Americas. History now documents that it was constructed in a location that went on to become one of the most storied shipbuilding regions in the entire United States.
And it was there in Maine, on a bright, sunny Saturday this past June, that a 51-foot replica of the Virginia launched after a decades-long volunteer effort to bring the Popham Colony’s history back to life. Maine’s First Ship is the nonprofit that made it happen, following years of research by academics and others in the United States and overseas who did their best to figure out how the original would have looked. Then, they came up with construction plans that would let the replica pass inspections to carry passengers today. The replica has a beam of 15 feet, 8 inches; a draft of 6 feet, 6 inches and a displacement of 98,560 pounds.
Original settlers of the Popham Colony didn’t leave any original shipbuilding plans behind, so the team had to dig through centuries-old journals, logbooks—anything that might mention tonnage or other details about ships of that era. In the early 2000s, the team figured that they had a pretty good approximation. They gave it to Dave Wyman, a naval architect in Maine whose other projects included a rebuild of the HMS Bounty, a reconstruction of an 1880s Gulf Coast schooner and more.
“My task was to design the ship, which would be consistent with all of that historical research—and, at the same time, consistent with modern safety requirements to get her Coast Guard-inspected to carry about 35 passengers,” Wyman told Soundings. “The original Virginia carried cargo down in her hold. That would have been fish or trinkets or trading goods. The modern one that we’re building carries a deck load of passengers, so stability requirements had to be part of the design. The beam of the vessel, I made as large as would have been consistent with what the upper limits would have been for beam on a ship. And the original one didn’t have a lead keel, but this version does have one, for stability.”
Volunteers, including shipwrights, then built the Virginia from Wyman’s plans. They used what Truluck calls “traditional construction with modern amenities.” Yes, they had power tools, but they also had hand saws and chisels. When the ship splashed in June, Truluck says, “it was the most anachronistic launch in history, a 17th-century vessel launched with a hydraulic crane that was purchased in 2020.”
The original Virginia, they believe, would have been built with a framing system that used four or five widely spaced mold frames. Craftsmen would then build the ship up around those frames, using futtocks that were attached to the planking, but not to each other. Modern construction is double-futtock, Wyman says. The frames are attached together into one solid frame, and they’re spaced at about 18 inches—much closer than back in the 17th century. The vessel ends up being structurally different, in a way that current safety standards require here in the year 2022.
“We just learned a bunch more in the past 400 years,” he says. “What was an acceptable loss rate 400 years ago is no longer an acceptable loss rate. We don’t allow for one failure, whereas back then, if two-thirds of the ships made it, that was considered great.”
Still, the team at Maine’s First Ship did its best to have the Virginia match what would have existed back then. Early in the process, Wyman says, he was part of a design review with shipwrights and captains who had expertise in 19th-century schooners. One of them noticed that the plans for the Virginia lacked a bobstay, which is the line that goes from the bowsprit to the stem.
“They said, ‘You have to have a bobstay,’” Wyman recalls. “A member of the team replied, ‘True, but they didn’t figure that out for another 200 years, so this ship will not have a bobstay.’”
Wyman says the team had two goals: make the vessel true to the historical evidence, and make her serviceable for the current times.
The U.S. Coast Guard has been involved with the project from the start. It approved Wyman’s plans for the build back in 2004. Inspectors have also shown up to check on the ship’s progress in the Bath Freight Shed. Now that the Virginia is launched, she’ll be rigged and put through a Coast Guard inspection. Wyman is updating the original plans to incorporate all the changes that happened in the yard along the way—a common process that will lead to an updated set of plans for the inspection and any future repairs that might be needed. Those plans will be kept alongside things like instruction manuals for the helm electronics, which Raymarine donated.
Meanwhile, Truluck is working on her own plans: to fundraise and organize future events aboard the Virginia. The hope is to be able to welcome visitors aboard in spring or summer 2023.
“We’ll have school groups, adult groups, visitors—it won’t be like Boothbay Harbor with five sails a day, seven days a week. We’re not that kind of organization,” Truluck says. “We would love to do tours, educational excursions and dockside visits. The interior has watertight bulkheads and a motor that they wouldn’t have had in the 17th century, but we’re leaving the interior of her hulls unplanked so you can see the construction and really get a sense of it. We’ll have days when people are in costume to give a sense of what it was like.”
Both she and Wyman say their hearts were full on launch day in early June, when at least 3,000 people turned out to cheer on the volunteers and applaud as the ship splashed. In some ways, they experienced the same thing that the original Popham Colony settlers experienced hundreds of years ago: They built a ship that could get the job done.
“There are two basic principles of naval architecture,” Wyman says. “The first is that the boat has to float, and the second is that it has to float upright. We proved both.”
This article was originally published in the August 2022 issue.