JAMESTOWN – In the flowing waters past the Jamestown Settlement Living History Museum, a trio of white-sailed ships wait.
In the early 1600s, these ships – the Susan Constant, the Godspeed and the Discovery – brought the first permanent English settlers from America to the shores of Virginia. Over the years, visitors to the museum have been able to board the reconstructed ships, using the same narrow paths that merchant sailors used.
But few people probably realize how much daily work still goes into ships even now.
Thanks to the hard work of the staff of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation and an additional crew of approximately 30 active volunteers who participate in the volunteer sailing program, these ships can come to life.
“One of the most important things and what I’m really grateful for is the number of hours our volunteers give us every year, the number of hours they give,” said Eric Speth, director maritime services. “We couldn’t do what we do without our volunteers.
When Speth first joined the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation in the late 1980s, he started the volunteer sailing program. An important part of the program includes the navigation of the ships, which are all seaworthy. Volunteers undergo approximately 64 hours of training to learn maintenance requirements, terminology, how to perform the many different tasks on board ships and, of course, how to navigate.
During the training process, volunteers take one of the vessels out on the James River, where they get to “really see it and feel how it moves through the water and how it works,” Speth said.
According to Speth, volunteers typically work a combined 8,500 hours per year. Almost every day of the year, at least one volunteer will be on hand to perform the many diverse tasks required to maintain the vessels.
“It is almost priceless to consider the amount of effort they have put into keeping the ships safe, well maintained and able to allow visitors to board each day we are open,” he said.
Volunteers are made up of a wide range of people, from retirees looking to fill their days to students at William & Mary.
One of those volunteers, Ian Burns, spent about three years with the program. Burns, who lives nearby but is originally from New York, said he has always enjoyed the story and now works in ship maintenance as well as a costumed interpreter.
“My wife decided at some point [years ago] that she wanted to volunteer at one of the historic sites here,” he said. “She decided probably 30 years ago that we were going to move here. And now I’m the volunteer.
Some of the volunteers arrive with some modern boating experience, but they all learn the techniques and historical necessities that come with leaving a ship like those at Jamestown Settlement. Although the ships all have the same navigational equipment that would have been used in the 17th century, modern sailors can also use modern equipment like a Global Positioning System (GPS).
Throughout the year the ships are taken to a number of events. In June the Godspeed made an appearance at Norfolk Harborfest and are expected to attend the Sultana Downrigging Weekend Festival and the Urbanna Oyster Festival in the fall.
For Aaron Thomeer, a staff member for about five years, sailing the ship is always a special occasion.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “The view from when you’re sailing and in the loft is completely different. You get to see how the sails actually work. It’s one thing to talk about it theoretically here, but to actually see [it happen] it’s cool.”
Sian Wilkerson, [email protected], 757-342-6616