Cordova Chronicles: The Mayflower, the Speedwell, and the Lady Simpson

Pilgrims endured a miserable 66-day trip before their arrival in America in 16

Thanksgiving time is here, and we all know stories about the Mayflower, Pilgrims, Indians, corn, and turkeys. And we have much for which to be thankful, living in our city by the sea.  In fact, to burn off some of that bounty from the traditional Thanksgiving Day feast, I recommend a stroll down to the sea: specifically, Float    D of the North Boat harbor.  Among the boats moored there is the Lady Simpson.

A 90-foot steel boat built by Ken Simpson, this well-maintained Bering Sea crabber also serves the Cordova fishing fleet throughout the summer as a tender during gill netting and seining.

But I ask you to examine this craft, not only because a daily stroll of 30 minutes is good for your health, but also to realize that if the Mayflower was tied alongside her, it would be only ten feet longer.

The Mayflower, with sails down battles rough Atlantic seas in her late fall crossing
The Mayflower, with sails down battles rough Atlantic seas in her late fall crossing

We read much about the miserable voyage the Mayflower made from Plymouth, England to the New World back in 1620, but cannot really comprehend how small ships were back then.  Can you imagine 103 men, women, and children crammed in a 60 by 24 foot cabin space below decks, with a ceiling so low many couldn’t stand up straight?

As if standing up was possible anyhow.  For 66 days they endured constant heavy seas, because their departure date on Sept. 6, 1620 coincided with the arrival of fall and winter westerlies that made the Atlantic a dangerous place for sailing.  The Mayflower, with a 30-foot high square aft deck, was especially difficult to sail against the wind.  Huge waves were constantly pounding against the topside decks, with sea water leaking through to the lower decks, adding to the misery of it’s passengers.

The next time you experience a tough trip past Knowles Head on the ferry Aurora, multiple that by a factor of five to get the idea.   And hope, if the fast ferry Fairweather is here, it lives up to its name, and doesn’t leave in such conditions.

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Also, over that turkey dinner, you might raise the question: “Has anyone here heard of a ship called the Speedwell?”

The Mayflower and the Speedwell depart England in 1920, destination America. The Speedwell proved not to be speedy or seaworthy, and never made it.
The Mayflower and the Speedwell depart England in 1920, destination America. The Speedwell proved not to be speedy or seaworthy, and never made it.

If ever a craft did not live up to its name, this would be the one.  The Speedwell was a sailing ship that could haul 60 tons.  Its actual dimensions are unknown. By comparison, the Mayflower had a 180-ton capacity.

Recall that Pilgrims left England because of religious persecution.  They did not have a monopoly on such oppression.  In Holland, others groups felt similar pressures, and a group of thirty some Dutch Leiden Church members purchased the much smaller Speedwell, intending to make the crossing to the New World with the Mayflower.

The Mayflower, with 65 passengers, departed London in mid-July, and waited at Southhampton seven days for a rendezvous on July 22 with the Speedwell.  On Aug. 5, the two ships departed, and the unseaworthy Speedwell quickly sprang a leak.  The two ships returned for repairs, and were 200 miles to sea when the Speedwell again began taking on water.   As it turns out, the mast and sail were too large for the ship’s structure to handle, and once it hit open water and strong winds, the torque from the sail and mast was so great that it created separation between the planks, allowing water to pour through.

Back they went to England, abandoning the Speedwell, taking the Dutch passengers onboard the Mayflower, and finally departing on September 6.  By now they were almost two months behind schedule, exhausted from living on shipboard, already short on provisions, and facing tougher fall and winter seas.

The Mayflower made landfall near Cape Cod on Nov. 9, 1620, discovering they were well north of their intended landing in Virginia, but found seas too rough to go south.  They anchored and waited.  Finally, on Nov. 27, 1620, they launched an expedition to shore, discovering corn and grains buried in Indian mounds, plus quickly realizing they were ill-equipped to survive a winter on shore.

Scurvy, pneumonia, and tuberculosis struck the Pilgrims and ship’s crew, which spent the winter crammed aboard the Mayflower.  Only 53 passengers and half the crew survived before the Mayflower was finally able to depart for England on April 5, 1621.   Because of favorable winds now at their back, the return trip took 33 only days.

One has to ponder what might have been, should the two ships have left as scheduled on Aug. 5th, with no problems with the smaller ship, thus avoiding the heavy seas, and perhaps arriving to much better conditions ashore in mid- September.

By slowing them down, a ship called the Speedwell had changed American history.  And by taking a walk in Cordova’s boat harbor to check out the Lady Simpson, we can gain newfound respect for what misery these Pilgrims endured in their search for religious freedom.

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Dick Shellhorn
Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and 2020, and third place in 2017 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes. Reach him at [email protected].