After more than a decade of research and planning, the reconstruction of the first ship built in Maine was kicked of with a keel-laying party on July 3. The project started in 1997 when a group of Bath residents formed a non profit organization called Maine’s First Ship (MFS). The group was dedicated to researching and reconstructing the pinnace Virginia, which was built by the members of the short-lived Popham colony (1607-1608), located at the mouth of the Kennebec River. The hope was to launch the vessel in 2008 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the colony.
For the first few years the focus was on researching Virginia’s design and excavating the location of the Popham colony. Fund-raising proved difficult, so the MFS board decided to proceed on a smaller scale. Last summer, construction of a 17th century rowing/sailing craft called a shallop was completed. Fifteen students from Morse High School in Bath, under the guidance of shipwright Will West and science teacher Eric Varney, built the 18-foot Jane Stevens.
The enthusiasm generated by the completion of Jane Stevens revived the Maine’s First Ship project. As part of the celebration of Bath’s Heritage Days, the keel was laid for the reconstruction of the pinnace Virginia at the Bath Freight Shed. The original Virginia was built ten miles south of Bath.
In 1607, King James I of England sponsored two expeditions to North America. Most are familiar with the settlers who landed in Jamestown, Virginia. Of more relevance to Maine, however, was the northern expedition. It was led by 58-year-old George Popham, described by a contemporary as, “an honest man but with an old and unwieldy body.”
With a company of 120 men composed of gentlemen, soldiers, artisans and farmers, Popham landed on the coast near present-day Phippsburg. The colonists faced a daunting agenda. They planned to fish, trade for precious metals, spices and fur, as well as to search for the Northwest Passage. Finally, they planned to use local timber to develop a shipbuilding industry. Unfortunately, within a year the colony failed due to a combination of circumstances, including the death of Popham and a brutal Maine winter.
The genesis of the present-day idea began with a 17th-century map of Fort St. George, which was built at the mouth of the Kennebec River by the Popham colonists. John Hunt, a draughtsman in the ill-fated expedition, drew the map. In the left-hand corner there is a drawing of a single-masted sailing vessel, which may very well be a pinnace. Tony Gibbs is a former editor of Yachting magazine and a resident of Bath. According to Tony, “Everything grew from that map.”
Gibbs emphasized that the project should be termed a reconstruction, not a replica. “No one used plans in those days,” he said. “The pinnace was the generic workboat of the day. There was a standard image of them that simply jumped into a shipwright’s head.”
John Bradford has been a MFS board member since 1997 and recently published a book entitled The 1607 Popham Colony’s Pinnace Virginia. He said that one of the colonists was a shipwright, Digby of London. His presence indicates that the group planned to build at least one pinnace. Work on Virginia began in the fall of 1607 and the ship was put into service early in the summer of 1608. When the colony closed down in the fall of 1608, Bradford said it was likely she was re-rigged to cross the ocean.
Virginia had two documented ocean crossings, Bradford discovered. The first was in 1608 when she returned some of the settlers to England. In late May 1609 she joined a convoy of eight ships headed for Jamestown. En route Virginia got separated from the other vessels and arrived at the James River in mid-September, a month later than the rest of the convoy. She was carrying sixteen soldiers to garrison Fort Algernon at Jamestown. After June 1610, however, Virginia disappears from recorded history.
Bradford emphasized that the pinnace was the ultimate all-purpose boat of the day. It was used in shallow coastal waters or crossing the ocean. He said that doing research on the vessel was “sometimes inspiring and sometimes maddening.” For example, there was no first name for Digby of London and, as noted, Virginia just faded away after arriving in Jamestown. And then there is the mystery boat in the Hunt map. Was it Virginia or another vessel? Nevertheless, the ship serves as a symbol for one of the Popham colony’s major objectives.
The modern Virginia’s design is a cross between a pinnace and a bark, which was more of a commercial vessel. Barks had more cargo space, but a pinnace was faster. Thus Virginia is a hybrid, with the speed of a pinnace and the cargo capacity of a bark.
The completed pinnace will be crewed by Morse students and will be used as an educational tool to teach school children and summer visitors about the history of the Kennebec River. She will be licensed to carry 35 passengers, with the intent to reproduce, as much as possible, what it was like to sail the Maine coast in 1607. John Bradford added, “For safety’s sake she will have modern ‘conveniences,’ including a diesel engine”.
Merry Chapin is co-president of Maine’s First Ship. She said that the high school students working on Virginia will get school credit and letters of recommendation documenting their efforts. Fundraising continues to be challenging although there have been several donations in kind. For example, the nearby Bath Iron Works provided safety equipment for the power tools used by the students. And recently MFS received a large shipment of “native” timber, since, as much as possible, they want to duplicate materials used in the original Virginia.
One day last summer, Merry Chapin recalls that there were four generations working together on the shallop Jane Stevens. Two men in their 80s drove daily from Auburn, the shipwrights were in their 60s, there was a 30-year-old high school teacher and 15 high school students. Maine’s First Ship is indeed a wonderful example of a community working together on a project.
Harry Gratwick is a retired history teacher and a summer resident of Vinalhaven. His latest book Mainers in the Civil War was released in April. For more information, visit harrygratwick.com.