- Historic Sites
The storm that wrecked the Virginia-bound ship Sea Venture in 1609 inspired a play by Shakespeare— and the survivors’ tribulations may well have sown the first seeds of democracy in the New World
April/may 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 3
For weeks the pinnace had stood in the stocks while her timbers dried and set into shape. But as the tides of late winter rose, she was lifted and buffeted and almost carried away. The governor ordered a hundred loads of stone brought from the neighboring hills and placed about her ribs. Toward the end of February she was ready for caulking. Old hemp cables were forced into the seams and coated over with pitch up to the top of the bilge. The ship bottom was cleaned with lime made from roasted and crushed whelk shells. At the end of March the hull was ready for launching. They buoyed her with casks fore and aft, released her from her wharf cradle, and with lines running to the bank, towed her on the morning tide. When she had settled into the water and was swimming free, everyone sighed with relief. The governor christened her Deliverance .
They towed her unrigged to the inside of the island near ponds of freshwater and a channel running to the sea. There they stepped her masts and readied her sails. A short time later Somers launched his pinnace and brought her around into the same channel. Considering the primitive conditions under which she had been built, she, too, was a handsome vessel, with a good draft and strong keelson. He called her Patience . The salvaged stores of meal and food were stowed aboard the vessels together with barrels of dried fruit and salt pork that had been gathered and processed on the islands. Beer and cider kegs were refilled with fresh water.
As his final act before quitting Bermuda, Gates had a memorial built on the main island. It consisted of a cross made from the timbers of the wrecked Sea Venture , inset with a British coin, and bearing a metal plate that proclaimed in Latin and English the castaways’ discovery of the island and their deliverance from the sea.
Somers and Newport went off ahead in the longboats, the vessels in loose tandem tow behind them. Avoiding the rocks was tedious, and the anxious passengers, kept back from the rails to stabilize the craft, gasped when the Deliverance struck something. But the coxswain in the longboat gave a quick heave of the line, and the vessel came free. For a day and a half they negotiated the shallows. Then the sails billowed wide and they struck a westerly course in fair seas. For seven days they sailed, the winds sometimes brisk, “sometimes scarce and contrary. ” And the spirits of the passengers, even those who had wanted to stay in Bermuda, were buoyed with the anticipation of joining friends in Virginia. Twice the larger vessel ran on ahead and lost the other and had to wait to let it catch up. The two cedar ships creaked incessantly with the newness of their seams, but they handled well.
On the seventeenth of May the water changed color, and the passengers saw fresh forest buds sweep past on the water. On the twentieth, around midnight, they “had a marvelous sweet smell from shore … which did not a little glad us. ” From the f oretop, at break of day, a sailor cried out at the sight of land. Strachey identified it as the coast of Virginia at Cape Henry. A gentle wind propelled them against the tide into the bay. And there, straight on, lay the headland of Point Comfort. When they were within two miles of it, they saw the smoke and heard the report of a warning shot fired from the fort there. They quickly anchored and sent a longboat in.
When those ashore understood who they were, they were greeted enthusiastically. As friends embraced, some of the survivors’ questions got answered. Yes, their companions and relatives of the Relief Fleet had arrived. Unfortunately most had succumbed to sickness and starvation in the months in Virginia. And no, the longboat sent from Bermuda had not appeared, unless it was the one local Indians said had come out of the sea and which then was destroyed by them.