The Mayflower: A Nautical Miracle

I prepared the March articles before Russia invaded Ukraine. Let me add, #StandWithUkraine.

The Mayflower is arguably one of the more famous ships in nautical history. The fact we know anything about it 400 years after its famous voyage is a nautical miracle. Had it not carried the Pilgrims across the stormy north Atlantic back in 1620, it would have likely faded away with little fanfare. Such was the fate of many other ships of that era, including other ships named Mayflower. Like many similar ships, the Pilgrim Mayflower was intended to haul cargo up and down the European Atlantic coast.

The ship hardly stood out among all the others until Christopher Jones agreed to take a group of passengers to the west edge of the Atlantic. It was his first and only trans-Atlantic crossing. Technically, he was not a captain, but rather the ship’s master. According to Caleb Johnson, in that era, the title “Captain” was reserved for military ships, not cargo or passenger ships. (

Ship Master Christopher Jones

Master Jones was born in England the late 1500s. He named his first ship Josian, after his wife. When he sold that ship in 1608 he bought the Mayflower, and three other ships. Jones was about fifty years old when the Adventurer Investors who financed the voyage hied him to sail the Mayflower to the New World.

The voyage left two months behind schedule and lasted sixty-six days. The crew sighted land in Cape Cod, about 400 miles north of the intended destination at the mouth of the Hudson River. Having arrived in the grip of a brutal winter, he and his crew stayed with the passengers several additional months. Once the settlers had built minimal shelter and started gardening, Master Jones sailed the Mayflower back to England.

Shortly after returning to England the Mayflower was stranded along the Thames and eventually sold for scrap lumber. There have been reports that the ship was hauled inland and turned upside down to form a barn. However, Caleb Johnson considers that theory an urban legend that cannot be confirmed.

A Nautical Miracle

We do know from historical accounts that the ship nearly capsized in the frigid North Atlantic. After a decade of hauling cargo up and down the West Coast of Europe the Mayflower was already in questionable condition. Then the passenger count significantly expanded because the companion ship, the Speedwell, had to be abandoned and all the ship’s passengers and cargo crammed into the Mayflower. Failed attempts to repair the Speedwell delayed the journey until late summer, putting the ship at risk crossing during the storm-prone fall and early winter.

Fortunately, the Pilgrims had construction tools onboard they intended to use to build homes in the new land. Some of the crew and passengers used them to repair the beam supporting the main mast when it cracked under the stress of the storm. Though the crew wanted to return to England, the leaders of the passengers convinced Master Jones to keep sailing west.

Miserable Accommodations

The conditions in the tween deck, where the passengers spent the vast majority of the  voyage, were truly horrific. No buffet lines. No ice sculptures. No evening entertainment. The 102 passengers plus the crew of around thirty endured cramped, noisy, and smelly accommodations. The passenger list included two dogs, perhaps a few other animals, several small children, and three pregnant women. All three had their babies while living on the ship. 

One passenger, Stephen Hopkins, had previous experience sailing to the New world. He traveled with his wife, Elizabeth, and three children. She was one of three pregnant women. When her boy was born they named him Oceanus.  

John Clarke, the ship Pilot, also had previous experience sailing to the New World, which proved crucial to their survival. He’d been a ship’s pilot in 1611 on a voyage to Jamestown in Virginia. Clarke stayed at Jamestown, hauling cargo around the Bay for about six weeks, until Spanish explorers took him prisoner. They initially took him to Havana, Cuba and then to Spain, where he was imprisoned five years. Upon his release he returned to England. Clarke made another voyage to Jamestown in 1618, delivering a cargo of cattle. (

If it had depended on me to come to the New World, under those conditions, my family would still be living in England.

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