Low ceilings

Mayflower II. Courtesy of Plimoth Plantation

I’ve always had a fascination with tall ships and antique sailing vessels. I like to think my interest is ingrained, coming genetically from my Norwegian seafaring ancestors. And I don’t mean Vikings, though it’s fun to think about those. I mean my oceanographer grandfather, Navy Lieutenant Commander great-grandfather, and sailor-turned-Coast Guard captain great-great-grandfather.

I’ve been lucky enough to indulge in my sailing fantasies a few times. Once I spent three days on a tall ship sailing off the coast of Los Angeles, on-board the Exy Johnson with the Los Angeles Maritime Institute. I’ve done evening and overnight tall ship cruises on the Hudson River on the Mystic Whaler. I even spent a couple of hours painting the Mayflower II back in 2008 as part of a community service experience for high schoolers.

I can’t really compare the ships I’ve been on to the Mayflower, or even her replica the Mayflower II. While my trips were on ships not dissimilar in size to Mayflower – the Exy Johnson and Mystic Whaler both have sparred length of 110 feet,[1] while Mayflower II’s overall length is 106 feet[2] – I had significantly fewer passengers with whom to contend. There were 102 passengers aboard the Mayflower when it made its transatlantic crossing;[3] my experiences were with no more than thirty or so people on board.

Modern-day tall ships, even those built in the traditional style of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sailing vessels, forsake authenticity for modern conveniences and living standards. While the Pilgrims lived on the “tween deck” with a ceiling height of no more than 5½ feet,[4] I lounged in cabins with ceilings eight or nine feet tall. While the Pilgrims used chamber pots to relieve themselves, we had modern heads (tiny though they were) with flush toilets and showers. We also had plenty of food, twenty-first century GPS equipment and charts, and electricity.

Modern-day tall ships, even those built in the traditional style of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sailing vessels, forsake authenticity for modern conveniences and living standards.

Back in 1957, thirty-three individuals (and one cat) did experience something like what the Pilgrims experienced on their journey from England to Massachusetts. The Mayflower II was somewhat more modern, with a wheel in place of a tiller, generator, electricity, radio system, inflatable life rafts, and a full galley.[5] Despite this, the 1957 crew often complained of her “shortcomings” and “imperfections,” unaccustomed to the quirks of a three-masted square-rigged seventeenth-century ship.[6]

In preparation for the 2020 festivities, Mayflower II has been undergoing a complete restoration at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, part of a multi-year project.[7] She’ll be in Boston in May 2020, one of many events commemorating the four hundredth anniversary of the landing of the original Mayflower at Plymouth.[8] Though I don’t have any Mayflower ancestors, I was enthralled by the Mayflower II the first time I saw her, thrilled to spend a few hours working as part of a volunteer project, and am constantly impressed by the legacy of Mayflower and Mayflower II. 

Notes

[1] Hudson River Sloop Clearwater’s Volunteer Handbook for the Schooner Mystic Whaler, 2,  and “Our Ships,” Los Angeles Maritime Institute Topsail Youth Program.

[2]Mayflower FAQs,” Plimoth Plantation.

[3] Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (New York: Viking, 2006), 3.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Maitland A. Edey, “A Modern Pilgrimage,” Life, 17 June 1957, 20.

[6] Ibid., 28, 35.

[7]Mayflower II Returns,” Mystic Seaport Museum.

[8] Mayflower Sails 2020.

Hallie Borstel

About Hallie Borstel

Hallie Borstel has a BA in history with minors in art history and German language from American University, as well as an MA in historic preservation from Tulane University. She joined NEHGS after several years working in architectural restoration and preservation in New Orleans. She has also worked at the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society, the West Virginia Railroad Museum, and Bender Library at American University. Her research interests include Germany, New York City, immigration history, and 19th-century America.

7 thoughts on “Low ceilings

  1. Hallie, I also had a saiing ship master as an ancestor. Captain Curtiss Blakeman, 1777-1833, made numerous trips to China, bringing back trade goods. He captained the Triton in the early 1800s. The Macedonian in 1815 (407 tons) was considered one of the fastest sailing ships in the world at the time; in it he outran the British blockade to reach China, sailing for J. Astor. I have searched for a picture of one of these ships, or at least a picture of a similar ship of the time, without success. Would you have any suggestion where such a picture might be found?

    1. Fascinating! I’m not sure about finding a picture of the exact ship, but if you can use newspaper articles to determine what type of ship it was (brigantine, frigate, schooner, etc.) you should be able to search for contemporary paintings depicting that type of ship. You might also try the Lloyd’s of London ship’s registers for a description of the ship. https://hec.lrfoundation.org.uk/archive-library/lloyds-register-of-ships-online
      Best of luck!

  2. Hallie, have you seen the Norwegian sailing ship, the Christian Radich, under sail. I was on a cruise to Scandinavia and was ayt the North cape when the ship was there too. As it left with sailors singing appropriate songs to raise the anchor, one turned to make sure that our ship was a modern one.

  3. Howland, I got to go on board the Christian Radich in Chicago over 50 years ago, but tied up at the pier, not sailing. We did see the Star of India when we lived in San Diego, she sailed to celebrate the Bi-Centennial. So elegant…

  4. The Radich came to Cleveland a few years ago. I tried to get on board based on the previous encounter but no way; the cost was too much for me at the time.

  5. Hallie – Today one can experience the traditional mariners’ life (with select modern conveniences) aboard “Picton Castle”. My fellow shipmate years ago, Capt. Dan Moreland is embarking this coming May from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia for an extensive South Pacific voyage. Modeled after the multiple Irving and Exy Johnson’s “Yankee” circumnavigations of the ’30’s, ’40’s and ’50’s as well as those of the Brigantine “Romance” in the ’70’s and ’80’s, the Picton Castle provides truly wonderful experiences to 20-somethings. Google the ship names for more information.

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