Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thursday, November 9, 1620.

. . . Jones tacked the Mayflower and stood in for shore. After an hour or so, all agreed that this was indeed Cape Cod.

Now they had a decision to make. Where should they go? They were well to the north of their intended destination near the mouth of the Hudson River. And yet there were reasons to consider the region around Cape Cod as a possible settlement site. In the final chaotic months before their departure from England, Weston and others had begun to insist that a more northern site in New England . . . was a better place to settle. . . . But when the Mayflower had departed from England, it had been impossible to secure a patent for this region, since what came to be called the Council for New England had not yet been established by the king. If they were to settle where they had legally been granted land, they must sail south for the mouth of the Hudson River 220 miles away.

Master Jones had his own problems to consider. Given the poor health of his passengers and crew, his first priority was to get these people ashore as quickly as possible -- regardless of what their patent dictated. If the wind had been out of the south, he could easily have sailed north to the tip of Cape Cod to what is known today as Provincetown Harbor. With a decent southerly breeze and a little help from the tide, they'd be there in a matter of hours. But the wind was from the north. Their only option was to run with it to the Hudson River. If the wind held, they'd be there in a couple of days. So Jones headed south.

Unfortunately, there was no reliable English chart of the waters between Cape Cod and the Hudson. . . . Except for what knowledge his pilots may have of this coast -- which appears to have been minimal -- Jones was sailing blind. . . .

For the next five hours, the Mayflower slipped easily along. After sixty-five days of headwinds and storms, it must have been a wonderful respite for the passengers, who crowded the chilly, sun-drenched deck to drink in their first view of the New World. But for Master Jones, it was the beginning of the most tension-filled portion of the passage. Any captain would rather have hazarded the fiercest North Atlantic gale than risk the uncharted perils of an unknown coast. Until the Mayflower was quietly at anchor, Jones would get little sleep. . . .

They sailed south on an easy reach, with the sandy shore of Cape Cod within sight, past the future locations of Wellfleet, Eastham, Orleans, and Chatham. Throughout the morning, the tide was in their favor, but around 1 p.m., it began to flow against them. Then the depth of the water dropped alarmingly, as did the wind. Suddenly, the Mayflower was in the midst of what has been called "one of the meanest stretches of shoal water on the American coast": Pollack Rip.

Pollack Rip is part of an intricate and ever-changing maze of shoals and sandbars stretching between the elbow of Cape Cod and the tip of Nantucket Island, fifteen or so miles to the south. The huge volume of water that moves back and forth between the ocean to the east and Nantucket Sound to the west rushes and swirls amid these shoals with a ferocity that is still, almost four hundred years later, terrifying to behold. It's been claimed that half the wrecks along the entire Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States have occurred in this area. In 1606, the French explorer Samuel Champlain attempted to navigate these waters in a small pinnace. This was Champlain's second visit to the Cape, and even though he took every precaution, his vessel fetched up on a shoal and was almost pounded to pieces before he somehow managed to float her free and sail into Nantucket Sound. Champlain's pinnace drew four feet; the deeply laden Mayflower drew twelve.

The placid heave of the sea had been transformed into a churning maelstrom as the outflowing tide cascaded over the shoals ahead. And with the wind dying to almost nothing, Jones had no way to extricate his ship from the danger, especially since what breeze remained was from the north, pinning the Mayflower against the rip. "[T]hey fell amongst dangerous shoals and roaring breakers," Bradford wrote, "and they were so far entangled therewith as they conceived themselves in great danger." It was approaching 3 p.m., with only another hour and a half of daylight left. If Jones hadn't done it already, he undoubtedly prepared an anchor for lowering -- ordering sailors to extract the hemp cable from below and to begin carefully coiling, or flaking, the thick rope on the forecastle head. If the wind completely deserted them, they might be forced to spend the night at the edge of the breakers. But anchoring beside Pollack Rip is never a good idea. If the ocean swell should rise or a storm should kick up from the north, any vessel anchored there would be driven fatally onto the shoals. . . .

Just when it seemed they might never extricate themselves from the shoals, the wind began to change, gradually shifting in a clockwise direction to the south. This, combined with a fair tide, was all Master Jones needed. By sunset at 4:35 p.m., the Mayflower was well to the northwest of Pollack Rip.

With the wind building from the south, Jones made a historic decision. They weren't going to the Hudson River. They were going back around Cape Cod to New England.
Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower 35-39 (Penguin, 2006).

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