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Cruising With History

By Tom Neale, 7/13/2006


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The “Godspeed,” a replica of one of the three ships that bought the settlers to Jamestown VA.

Captain John Smith waded out onto a spit of sand which jutted far out into the Chesapeake Bay, between two deep rivers. The sand was just a few feet under water, and he could look down and see the bottom, grasses, even fish. Fishing was so good in those days that he could spear them with his sword while wading. He could see them darting about under water. But there was something that he couldn’t see—at least not well enough to stay out of harms way. He was walking toward an almost imperceptible mound in the sand. The two spots at one end were eyes, but you couldn’t tell it from above the water.

The slight ridge in the sand behind the mound was the stingray’s tail. When Smith stepped almost on top of the ray, it started and instinctively lashed out. The barb in the tail found its mark, cutting into the Captain’s flesh. The pain was instant, searing and disabling. He foundered in the shallow water as the ray scooted off leaving a trail of sand dust under the waves.

The other men rushed in to help and carried Smith back to the shore. Here he lay writhing in pain as the men stood by helpless. The pain was so intense that they felt sure that he would die. At the Captain’s request, they began digging a grave high on the beach. He had long felt that this was one of the prettiest areas in the world, and he felt that this point, looking out over the Bay, was fitting for his final resting place.

About Cruising With History

1. Some guide books emphasize navigation, others history, some try to cover both. Often we’ve found it helpful and worthwhile to buy two guide books, each emphasizing one or the other aspect, just so we’ll get the maximum experience.

2. It doesn’t make sense to spend all that money on a boat and the fuel and then miss out on much of the experience because you don’t spend the bucks on good guide books so that you can get the whole picture.

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The Indians who were with him had other ideas. They were of the Powhatan Nation. They’d “been there done that” and set out to help. They quickly got into a canoe and began furiously paddling across the mouth of the broad river to the north of the peninsula, and around the point of the river’s northeastern shore. They disappeared up a creek as the men back on the beach wondered what they were doing. Some time later, the Indians returned, still paddling furiously, back to the prostrate explorer. With them they had a poultice made from leaves or roots or perhaps something else—those details are unfortunately obscured by the passing time.

The Indians applied the remedy to Captain Smith and, it’s reported, he began to feel better almost immediately. We know today that he probably would have recovered anyway because of the nature of the wound, and that, with the lapse of time, recovery was probably already well underway. But we can also imagine that the help from his friends, and their confidence in a remedy, did a great deal to make him feel better. The grave went unused, it’s location long sense eroded away as the point diminished to the storms of the centuries. The Captain went on to continue to explore—to continue to cruise.

The point where the grave was dug is now known as “Stingray Point.” It was off the beach that Smith was wading. The creek to the north of the river is now known as Antipoison Creek. The broad river to the north was the Rappahannock. Time has perhaps obscured some of the details and clouded some of the facts, but the story is a good one.

“Map drawn by Captain John Smith”

When we cruise in this area the experience is, if possible, even more fascinating when we remember the history. It wasn’t far away that Pocahontas plead for (and saved) John Smith’s life. An easy day’s cruise (in a slow boat) brings you to the Jamestown area where the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery first put in at Jamestown with a band of settlers, cramped and exhausted from a torturous fearsome cruise across the Atlantic—a cruise that very few of us would ever want to take. You can go aboard the replicas of these boats, and become easily convinced that you’ve got absolutely no room to complain about the lack of comforts of your boat.

Wherever we cruise, we’re in the midst of a wealth of history. Usually it is more exciting, more interesting than the best of fiction. Consider, for example, Matanzas Inlet in northern Florida. As we travel down the ICW we see the weathered remains of Fort Matanzas, which has stood alone in the marshes of Rattlesnake Island for over 300 years. We’re amazed at the toughness of the Spaniards who lived within its walls in the mosquito and snake infested wilderness. " Matanzas" means, "place of slaughter."

After Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles conquered and killed the French Huguenots at Ft. Caroline on the St. Johns, (about a day to the north in a slow boat) he learned that their leader, Jean Ribauld, and his fleet had perished in a storm off this inlet, and that survivors were encamped ashore. Menendez marched down from St. Augustine to find approximately 300 men. With only around 50 men in his force, he convinced the French to surrender, promising fair treatment. The “fair treatment” consisted of a meal and then execution of all but the few who claimed to be Roman Catholic. A few days later, he found more survivors, including Ribauld, just a little farther south. He induced 120 to surrender with the same type of promises, and the same fulfillment. This is but a small thread of the tapestry of history in the area.

Consider Mystic in Connecticut and Gloucester in Massachusetts from where the whaling ships sailed and great clippers departed to race across the oceans of the world. In Gloucester, much more recent history was in the making when the doomed commercial trawler Andrea Gail departed for her fatal embrace with the “Perfect Storm” in October of 1991.

On the Great Loop route in the middle of our country we travel waters known by some of the great inland explorers of past centuries and the steamboats loved by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) who piloted them for awhile. The West Coast conceals the bones of some of the world’s finest clipper ships, which made record shattering runs from New England and Europe, around the Horn, to help develop the entire western dimension of our country.

Fort Matanzas as seen from the ICW in north Florida

In the Pacific Northwest we remember how the Pacific was finally reached by Lewis and Clarke in 1805 during their epic journey of discovery when they reached the mouth of the Columbia River. But, of course, others were here before Lewis and Clark. In his voyage of Pacific Artic discovery, Captain Cook marveled at the Bering Straits when he reached the area around 1778-1779. Today we can cruise incredibly beautiful bays and rivers, staring up at mountains and even glaciers, and wonder about what some believe to have been the first human migration to this continent, across the Bering Straits, so very long before Europeans ever dreamed of what was here.

I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the stories and legends that you can encounter as you cruise. So much of what has happened on this continent in the past happened around the water. As you cruise from place to place this summer, try to learn before you go some of the history of the area you’re going to visit. If you’ve got kids aboard, they might like to see, up close and personal, what they’re learning about from their history courses. Tuning in to the history of the waters around you will add an entirely new dimension to your cruising and make you feel even more appreciative of your own experiences on your boat.

Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale