Exploring the bay ... John Smith's way

400 years later, replica boat to make educational trip


March 31, 2007|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,Sun reporter

NORFOLK, Va. -- It didn't take long yesterday for the handsome wooden boat to fill with dirty brown water, maybe an hour after the speeches and its well-documented launch, while dignitaries were inside Nauticus museum, having lunch and congratulating each other.

But swamp was exactly what the shallop - a replica of explorer John Smith's vessel - was supposed to do, and it came through with flying colors.

"It's great to be on a sinking boat," joked Capt. Ian Bystrom to bystanders along the city waterfront. "We're just washing her out."

Made of sturdy timber from Maryland's Elk Neck State Forest, the boat will set out May 12 from Jamestown, Va., for a three-month voyage around the Chesapeake Bay to commemorate Smith's exploration 400 years ago. It will tie up in Baltimore and Annapolis in mid- and late July before ending its journey Sept. 8 back where it started.

The launch capped years of planning by history buffs and recreation advocates, who hope to turn the Chesapeake Bay into an enormous classroom and tourist destination. Rowing and sailing, a dozen crew members will cover 1,200 miles, meeting the public, explaining their mission and creating, it is hoped, a new generation of bay stewards.

But first came the sinking.

The boat was built in two 14-foot sections - one labeled Maryland, the other Virginia - with spaces between the timbers to allow for swelling upon immersion, just as shipwrights did in Smith's time. At first, water trickled in. Then it gushed like little waterfalls. Finally, with barefooted crewmen, pants rolled to their knees, rocking back and forth, the boat filled nearly to the gunwales.

Although everything went according to plan, organizers held their breaths during the 60 minutes it took to just add water.

"This is the first time the two halves have been together," said Drew McMullen, president of Sultana Projects, the voyage's organizer. "We had only three days to put it together. If there had been any snafus, we wouldn't have had a lot of time to fix it."

In the stern is a plank from Maryland's Wye Oak, recognized as the largest white oak in the country when it fell during a storm in June 2002. The Eastern Shore tree, which grew to nearly 100 feet tall and 32 feet around, was at least 65 years old when Smith began his voyage of discovery.

Two weeks from now, the shallop will be pumped out, decked out and ready for sea trials. In the meantime, the crew will be training their muscles and brushing up on their Jamestown and Smith history with scholars.

In addition to bringing attention to the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, the voyage will highlight the new Chesapeake National Historic Water Trail, the first all-water trail in the National Park system. The law authorizing the trail was approved by Congress and signed by President Bush last year.

Trail information will be accessible to those in boats and kayaks and people who arrive at shoreline historical sites by car or bike though a system of talking "smart buoys" that can be accessed through Verizon Wireless.

"This is not just about recreation," said Patrick Noonan, chairman emeritus of the Conservation Fund. "It's about imprinting our young people about the importance of the Chesapeake Bay and the importance of protecting it."


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