Climb on board the Mayflower II, as she makes her return voyage from Buzzards Bay, through the Cape Cod Canal, into Cape Cod Bay and home to Plymouth Harbor.
We meet in the dark, in the upper parking lot at Plimoth Plantation.
For the Mayflower’s long awaited return it is literally “all hands on deck,” and Plimoth Plantation Deputy Director Richard Pickering has volunteered to drive us to the boatyard in Fairhaven.
As he drives Pickering regales his passengers with accounts of his decades at the Plantation, the dozen or more characters he has “impersonated” in his time there, and the odd fact that when he began to work at the Plantation he was young enough to play the groom in one of the annual weddings and, more recently, played the same groom’s father-in-law.
We arrive at the Fairhaven shipyard well versed in the mission of the Plantation and the important role that the Mayflower plays in that effort. Whether it’s pottery or white oak planking, Pickering explains, the Plantation is always experimenting with a kind of archaeology-in-reverse. And suddenly there she is, silhouetted by the early morning light, Plimoth Plantation’s largest experiment – Mayflower II.
From the dock, or the water, the Mayflower looks in near pristine condition. But onboard, this morning at least, it’s clear she is still and perhaps always will be a work in progress. Everywhere there are tools, wires, buckets, brooms, tarps and more. She really isn’t ready for company. That’s in part due to the fact that just 12 hours earlier the Coast Guard gave the ship one last stem to stern inspection. Only after that was it sure she’s be allowed to head home Wednesday.
The New Bedford-based tugboat, Jaguar, arrives and nuzzles up against the Mayflower almost affectionately. The two ships are tied together and then slowly, deftly, the Jaguar pirouettes away from the Fairhaven dock.
Capt. Peter Arenstam takes up a position above the poop house, with his small crew positioned strategically about the ship, watching the lines for lobster boats making their early-morning exit and calling out as, arm-in-arm, the two ships saunter toward the hurricane gate.
A few minutes outside the hurricane gate we slow and the Jaguar lets go of the Mayflower and rolls out and away from her port side, allowing the thick yellow towline, which had been pre-positioned, to unfurl in the water. Then the tug moves forward, about 50 yards in front of the Mayflower’s bow before that line becomes taut, and we begin to make serious headway, an estimated around 9 or 10 knots.
Here’s where the Dramamine is supposed to kick in. The half dozen “guests” on the cruise have been strongly advised that the Mayflower’s sailing characteristics can bring experienced sailors to their knees. The ship’s biennial trips to Fairhaven are usually taken between December and March, so besides its tendency to pitch and roll and rumba, these voyages are often marked by strong winds and low temperatures.
Today, though, the inner harbor of Fairhaven, the open waters of Buzzards Bay, the swift-moving water in the Cape Cod Canal and the often-tempestuous tides of Cape Cod Bay and Plymouth Harbor are all on their best behavior.
Now well into Buzzard’s Bay, the crew is beginning to conduct inspections below decks on the quarter hour, monitoring the water in the bilge beneath the cargo hold, running the pumps for short intervals to keep that water from becoming problematic, and scrutinizing the condition of the planking – new and old.
After a short time in the Bay, with the tow line pulling the bow down into the water, what would be a disconcerting amount of seawater to one unfamiliar with the ship can be seen trickling through the bow below decks.
Asked at what level the water would become a concern, Arenstam simply says, “We don’t let it get to that level.” Yet, the new white oak planking – easily identified below decks – is bone dry
Crewmember Thomas Bott confesses that his seaman’s skills are lacking, so to improve the chance he’ll be chosen to crew these voyages he has taken on the role of ship’s cook. His first offering is a homemade southern-style corn bread (served right out of the cast-iron skillet in which it was cooked earlier in the morning)
As the ship nears the mouth of the Cape Cod Canal, there’s a first indication of the welcome Mayflower II will receive in Plymouth. At the Canal’s southern entrance, near Mass. Maritime, hundreds of people stand waving and hollering. Soon, several other boats come alongside, including the Wareham harbormaster’s boat, its water cannon spraying a fantail of water high into the air.
There are more large crowds as the ship passes under the Bourne Bridge, lining the paved path normally used by walkers and bikers. After the Sagamore Bridge, the crowds grow even larger, and near the mouth of Cape Cod Bay hundreds of people, apparently having walked down from the RV park at the Scusset Reservation, line the Canal to get a look at the Mayflower II passing by.
“Get used to it,” Arenstam says, “you’ll be waving from now until we get to Plymouth.”
Entering Cape Cod Bay there is the expectation, bolstered by the crew’s experience, that our luck can’t possibly hold: The winds are surely going to pick up, the ship is going to begin to roll and Saltines – the fishermen’s prescription for nausea – will have to be dispensed.
Instead, the waters are as smooth as any encountered so far. So smooth we can almost steer by the long line of lobster buoys that punctuate the waters leading north.
This last two-hour stretch is an opportunity to rest our legs. We’ve been standing onboard, moving between decks or climbing up and down ladders for almost four hours.
This is also crewman Bott’s opportunity to reassert his role as ship’s cook, this time with a spicy seafood gumbo.
Back in Fairhaven when he said that gumbo would be served mid-morning, it was understood as a rite of initiation, a challenge to our seaworthiness and ballast for the gut. But here on these placid seas, we were able to enjoy Bott’s gumbo for its taste. Delicious!
We’re passing White Cliffs and suddenly Arenstam and another crewmember energetically climb the rigging of the shortest mast. It’s called the “mizzenmast,” crewmember Diane Fletcher explains.
Other crewmembers hoist up a block and rigging and, finally, a heavy wooden flagstaff. “It looks like an oversized table leg,” one of the guests blurts out, as the two-crew members who have gone aloft carefully secure everything to the mast.
When all the pieces are in place, a ceremonial flag bearing the names of past crewmembers is hoisted and unfurled.
The raising of the flag is the cue for the crew to begin to get Mayflower II ready for paying guests.
After the deck is swept, a canvas tarp is removed from the wide stairs that (in a bow to her tourist appeal) have been retrofitted to allow for easy passage below decks.
As that staircase is swept and vacuumed by two of the crew, others begin to scour the decks for any and all tools, wires, scrap wood, extra tarps or any item that would detract from visitors imagining her predecessor’s historic voyage.
Bucket after bucket is brought on to the deck and carefully stacked up.
Then, here comes the captain carrying a portable space heater.
“There have been other trips with calm seas or warm weather,“ he acknowledged earlier, “but never one that I can remember with both calm seas and warm weather.”
This hopefully bodes well for what still lies ahead.
Now halfway between Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station and Bug Light, ships from Plymouth Harbor coming out to greet the Mayflower II. Soon harbormaster and police boats have taken up position.
As she moves between Saquish and Long Beach, the mayflower is accompanied by at least a dozen craft, of all sizes. Then, to the surprise of onlookers, the tug slows and seems to disconnect from the ship. The Mayflower’s crew, however, is still moving with purpose.
They clamber on top of the forecastle and out onto the bowsprit, working to detach the ship from the main towline. First they hoist the towline out of the water so it can be pulled back onto the deck of the Jaguar.
Now the Jaguar nuzzles up against the Mayflower again and once the crews have secured the two ships together, the two hulls move as one. We navigate toward Bug Light and the excitement building.
After taking a left at Bug Light, the ship is led slowly down the narrow channel that leads to the inner harbor.
To the port side there are people standing along Ryder Way and the harbor side of Long Beach, waving furiously. To starboard there is a reception line of boats, including the John Howland Society’s 17th century shallop, the Elizabeth Tilley, which Arenstam helped design and build.
The big question, though, is what kind of greeting will the Mayflower II receive from the people of Plymouth. From here, the shore is still too distant to tell.
The water cannon on the bow of the harbormaster’s boat begins to spout. Horns begin sounding and faint cheers can be heard. Slowly, a colorful tapestry comes into focus, revealing itself as hundreds, if not thousands of people lining the shore.
The pier is full. People stand five or six deep in the walking paths between the Rock and the Mayflower’s berth.
As the ship glides slowly into her berth, it’s possible to pick out individual faces. Everyone is smiling. Music is playing. Cameras are clicking.Welcome home!
Follow Frank Mand on Twitter @frankmandOCM.