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Maine’s first ship: Reconstructing the 1607 pinnace Virginia

Oct 31, 2019
Artist’s conception of the pinnace Virginia equipped with its coastal spritsail rig.

Artist’s conception of the pinnace Virginia equipped with its coastal spritsail rig.

Patrice Calkin/Ocean Navigator

To the editor: The coast of Maine is known for boatbuilding. From peapods to superyachts, from lobster boats to Navy ships, pretty much every form of the industry is represented. And, it turns out that Maine’s shipbuilding heritage began before anywhere else in North America. Of course, Native Americans all across the continent had been building the lovely craft traditional to each of their cultures long before European arrival, but the building of large Western ships began in Maine.

It started with a 50-foot (plus or minus) “pinnace” called Virginia, built in 1607. To celebrate and teach people about this long maritime heritage, a nonprofit organization is currently reconstructing Virginia on the waterfront of Bath, Maine (www.mfship.org).

While everyone knows about the Jamestown colony, fewer are aware that the Popham Colony was founded soon after it in August 1607. One hundred and twenty men came over from England on two ships, Mary and John and Gift of God, and quickly set about building a fort, a storehouse and a ship: “a pretty Pynnace of about some 30 tonne which they called Virginia.” By October 1607, she was launched and ready for coastal exploration, trade and fishing.

Though off to a fast start, the colony didn’t last. Mary and John soon left for England, and in December Gift of God left too, with 50 colonists aboard as well as a few mast spars from the timber-rich New World. Access to good spar timber (rare in England) was almost certainly one reason for the formation of the colony in the first place. Nine months later, in September 1608, Mary and John returned to Popham colony with the news that its president, Raleigh Gilbert, had come into an inheritance. Between financial problems and the loss of their leader, all the colonists decided to return home. They emptied the storehouse, re-rigged Virginia with a square main course and large topsail, and set off. By Dec. 1, 1608, both ships were back in England.

It must have been a crossing to write home about, in winter and in a small, hastily built ship intended for coastal voyaging. And yet Virginia made another Atlantic crossing in May 1609 to Jamestown, following which she fished in the Chesapeake. Records of her cease soon after.

As with most ships of the period, no line drawings exist for Virginia or probably ever did. The colonist “Digby of London,” who led the ship’s construction, was almost certainly building from experience. So when the nonprofit organization Maine’s First Ship was established in order to reconstruct the vessel, the first task was to determine exactly what form this “Pynnace” took. In written records, she is called alternately a pinnace and a barque. Typically, a pinnace would have been a light and maneuverable (by the standards of the day) support vessel with a keel-to-beam ratio of 3:1 and a length-on-deck-to-beam ratio of 4:1. A barque would usually have been a larger commercial vessel with significantly more beam: a keel-to-breadth ratio of 2:1 and LOD-to-beam of 3:1. However, the term barque was also used more generically to mean any vessel with a “ship” (square) rig and two or more masts. It therefore seemed more likely that Virginia would have been closer to a typical pinnace. A sketch of Popham Colony with a ship at anchor confirmed this, as did the only concrete detail — that her size was “30 ton” (a “ton” or “tun” being a volume unit referring to a barrel holding 252 gallons).

Volunteers at work on Virginia’s deck beams and knees.

Ellen Massey Leonard

With this information, Maine’s First Ship engaged two naval architects. Fred M. Walker, formerly of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England, developed the historic concept design, and David B. Wyman of Castine, Maine, created the working design plans that the reconstruction has followed.

Virginia is a high-sided, bluff-bowed, shallow-draft 51-footer with inward sloping tumblehome. She is as historically accurate as possible, given her intended use as an educational platform out on the water. Coast Guard requirements demand that she be more stable than the historic ship would have been, and also that she carry modern gear. When finished, she’ll be equipped with an engine and three-bladed propeller, modern navigational and communications equipment, and facilities for 35 passengers.

In almost all other respects, however, today’s Virginia will be very close to the original colonial ship. Historic restoration expert and shipwright Rob Stevens, whose previous project was an authentic reconstruction of a Viking ship, is overseeing construction. Almost all the work is being done by volunteers. Construction began in 2011 with laying the keel and is now about two-thirds complete, with deck beams and knees going in. The original pinnace would have been built in white oak and white pine, and the reconstruction uses the same along with some hackmatack and ash. For fasteners, the volunteer shipwrights are using black locust “trunnels” (treenails) as well as iron bolts and nails, just as the colonists would have done. Below the waterline, however, less corrosion-prone bronze fasteners are being used to prolong the life of the ship.

The method of framing Virginia is a nod to modernity, at least in the historic ship world. The reconstructed vessel has double-futtock (or double-sawn) frames, meaning that everything is scarfed and bolted together before planking. The original ship would have had “loose futtocks,” which means that the floor, futtock and top timbers of each frame are not connected to each other, but only to the keel, planking and ceiling.

The reconstruction will also forego the method by which the colonists would have waterproofed their flax and hemp sails — with heavy grease and ochre. Otherwise, the rig is traditional, even down to the wooden blocks fashioned by the volunteers. The first ship had two rigs, one for her original intended coastal voyages and one for her trans-Atlantic crossings. Plans are for the reconstruction to have a version of the coastal rig: The 45-foot-tall mainmast will support a topsail and spritsail that can be replaced by an oceangoing square sail. Headsails will fly from both the forestay and the bowsprit, and the mizzen will have a spritsail for a total sail area of a little more than 1,400 square feet.

Since the first Virginia, the Kennebec River and surrounding area have been a nearly continuous hive of boat construction; indeed, the town of Bath, where the Virginia project is taking place, continues to work on Navy destroyers. How fitting then that a reconstruction of the 400-year-old pinnace should happen there and commemorate a long tradition of shipbuilding.

—Ellen Massey Leonard and her husband, Seth, completed a circumnavigation and have sailed to Alaska’s north coast.

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