Voyage of rediscovery

12 to re-enact John Smith's journey through the Chesapeake

May 12, 2007|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,Sun reporter

Like John Smith nearly 400 years ago, the seven men and five women aboard a wooden replica of the explorer's boat have a starting point and an end point, and a big question mark in between.

The 1,200 miles along the shore of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries will be as much a voyage of discovery as a re-enactment of when Smith set out from Jamestown, Va.

This morning, eight oars will dip into the water, grasped by callused hands and powered by newly tanned and toughened arms.

Three of the crew members sailed on the Pride of Baltimore II , one has bicycled across the country and another hiked the Appalachian Trail end to end.

"I think we're as ready as we're going to be," Capt. Ian Bystrom says of his crew. "For the last five weeks, it's been nonstop preparation with no real routine at all. I think we're looking forward to settling down."

On June 2, 1608, Smith set off in his small boat with 14 men to explore the region.

"He went down the James River and made a left turn into the bay. He thought he might end up in China," says Drew McMullen, president of Sultana Projects Inc., the maritime educational program behind the event. "There was no map, no nothing. It was a gutsy move on his part."

Smith reached the Patapsco River on June 13 and turned toward home at the request of his exhausted crew. He made it to Jamestown on July 21 only to find the settlement in revolt and its residents dying. Three days later, he departed again, hoping to find the headwaters of the bay. On Aug. 3, he reached Port Deposit, a few miles up the Susquehanna River, and turned around.

This exploration has a bit more technology and better maps to guide it. A GPS transponder aboard the boat will mark its progress every 15 to 20 minutes, which will be plotted onto a Google Earth interface on the Web site www.johnsmith400.org. The boat has cell phones and a satellite link for sending out journal entries and photos.

Still, except for its 20 or so planned stops, the crew, like Smith's, will be largely on its own. They will tie up at people's backyards and docks and at waterfront parks. Crew members have small packs containing a few personal belongings and enough food to last about a half-week.

The menu consists of finger foods and one-pot suppers.

"We need to cook for 12 people in 30 minutes, says Bystrom. "It's `add the rice, add the beans' one night and `add the pasta, add the sauce' the next night."

And if a shore party greets them with pizzas or buckets of chicken, "we'll find a use for them," the captain says with a laugh.

The boat travels 2.3 mph when rowed. Raising its sails doubles the speed.

That makes keeping to the schedule difficult. For example, getting down the Potomac River from Washington and up the western shore of the bay to Annapolis will require at least seven hours of rowing each day for two weeks in the heat of summer.

"It's going to be gruesome. It's going to take stamina. It's going to take a crew that is mentally tough," says McMullen. "This is not a done deal. It's got a 60, 75 percent chance for success. If this is going to have any resonance, it can't be easy."

Although the 121-day trip starts and ends in Virginia and makes stops in Delaware and Washington, the bulk of the voyage and the boat itself are Maryland through and through.

Made of sturdy timber from Cecil County's Elk Neck State Forest and built on the Eastern Shore, the open boat carries a bit of the state's history in its stern: a plank from the 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.

In addition to being a 28-foot-long floating history lesson, the wooden boat, called a shallop, will also serve as a platform for a study of conditions on the bay.

There's a lot to talk about.

Smith's journal practically shouts with delight as he describes a tree-lined bay "teeming with life," where oysters "lay as thick as stones" and the waters were populated by "sturgeon, grampus, porpoise, seals, stingrays ... brits, mullets, white salmon [rockfish], trouts, soles, perch of three sorts.

"Within is a country that may have the prerogative over the most pleasant places known, for large and pleasant navigable rivers, heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man's habitation," he wrote.

These days, the Chesapeake Bay is known for its depleted oyster population, dead zones and declining grass beds. The crew ecologist and naturalist will document their findings augmented by instruments on board.

"We'll be taking 15 water-quality measurements every hour to give people who visit our Web site a water quality snapshot the entire length of the voyage," says McMullen.

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