Maine’s First Ship Returns
June 17, 2011
By Tony Gibbs
Four hundred years after she disappeared from the history books, the first ship built in Maine is about to stage a reappearance. On July 3, the keel will be laid in Bath for the reconstruction of Virginia, a 50-foot pinnace whose namesake was constructed in 1607, just a few miles down the Kennebec River in the ill-fated Popham colony.
Authorized by England’s new king, James I, the Englishmen who landed at the mouth of the Kennebec hoped to establish a permanent colony, the northern element of a 2-pronged venture whose other half was located several hundred miles south at Jamestown, in what is now Virginia.
The northern settlement lasted little more than a year, undercut by the death of its principal financial backer, Sir John Popham, and the bitter Maine winter, among other things. But in that short time, the 100-odd pioneers built a walled settlement, which they named Fort St. George, and the Virginia, which in 1608 carried many of the surviving colonists back to England.
A sturdy little craft of a type known as a pinnace, the original Virginia was designed, and her construction supervised, by a naval architect and shipwright whose name survives in the colony’s records as “Digby of London.” Thus she was not the work of desperate amateurs but a product of the surprisingly sophisticated shipbuilding industry that was beginning to flower at the start of the 17th Century.
The “new” Virginia will incorporate native New England woods, such as white oak and longleaf yellow pine, and its rigs will mirror both the coastwise and ocean-going configurations employed in the original pinnaces.
The fact that a man qualified as both a naval architect and construction supervisor was included among the first colonists strongly suggests that ongoing vessel construction was very much in Sir John Popham’s mind. And when successful colonization did come to the Maine coast, commercial shipbuilding wasn’t far behind. It became an economic backbone of the colony and then the state, to the point that, in the late 19th Century, some 2 dozen shipbuilding establishments lined the Kennebec in the City of Bath alone.
By a stroke of historical coincidence, the Virginia’s reconstruction will take place in a 19th Century freight shed only a few hundred yards from Bath Iron Works, where futuristic U.S. Navy warships are currently built and launched.
It was about 14 years ago that a group of Bath residents decided to memorialize the state’s waterborne heritage by reconstructing the Virginia—New England’s first ship. No plans of her existed, and only a sketch on a contemporary map suggests what she may have looked like. Given this scant information, a research team was formed to investigate 17th Century English ship design and construction, and examine other historical reconstructions of the period.
In a soon-to-be-published book, one of those researchers, John W. Bradford, details the historical sleuthing, on both sides of the Atlantic, that went into deciding what the original Virginia most probably looked like and how she was built. A Maine naval architect, David B. Wyman, used his own historical knowledge to draw up plans for the reconstruction—plans that combined the maximum degree of historical accuracy with the current requirements of the U.S. Coast Guard regarding vessel safety.
The “new” Virginia will incorporate native New England woods, such as white oak and longleaf yellow pine, and its rigs will mirror both the coastwise and ocean-going configurations employed in the original pinnaces. Today’s Virginia will also have a diesel engine to assist in making timely voyages to publicize Maine history and shipbuilding heritage.
Like the original Popham colony, the Maine’s First Ship project ran into crippling hard times, and 3 years ago its directors decided its goal couldn’t be achieved. But some of the founders refused to accept defeat, and pressed on with an interim project on a smaller scale: the construction of the Jane Stevens, a rowing/sailing craft known as a shallop, used in the 17th Century and later to explore shoal waters and ferry goods and people from deep-draft vessels to shore. Under the guidance of shipwright Will West, science teacher Eric Varney, and filmmaker Patti Irish, the students of Bath’s Morse High School built the 18-foot Jane Stevens and launched her, to citywide acclamation, last summer.
The enthusiasm generated by the building of the Jane Stevens on the Kennebec waterfront revived the Maine’s First Ship project and enabled the organization to schedule keel-laying for the much larger Virginia during Bath’s Heritage Days, held over the July 4th weekend. With an estimated cost of $1.2 million and a construction schedule stretching over approximately 4 years, the project is a major effort, especially in difficult economic times. But the Maine’s First Ship Board of Directors, led by retired teacher Merry Chapin and realtor Sharon Drake, look for the continued support of the City of Bath, Morse High School’s now-accomplished shipbuilders, and backers throughout Maine and New England.
Stay tuned to New England Boating for news and updates on the Virginia project.
Video on the Jane Stevens shallop project:
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