Hobson Woodward

 

On his book A Brave Vessel: The True Tale of the Castaways Who Rescued Jamestown and Inspired Shakespeare’s The Tempest

Cover Interview of April 09, 2010

A close-up

If a reader were to ask where to sample a page or two of A Brave Vessel, I would suggest turning to the beginning of chapter five. At that point in the book a rogue wave sweeps the Sea Venture in the midst of a black July night. William Strachey’s description of the foaming sea pouring into the ship is one of the most thrilling passages of his narrative:

So huge a sea broke upon the poop and quarter, upon us, as it covered our ship from stern to stem like a garment or a vast cloud. It filled her brim-full for a while within, from the hatches up to the spardeck. The source or confluence of water was so violent, as it rushed and carried the helmsman from the helm and wrested the whipstaff out of his hand, which so flew from side to side that when he would have seized the same again it so tossed him from starboard to larboard as it was God’s mercy it had not split him, it so beat him from his hold and so bruised him.

The sailors manage to wrestle the ship under control and the voyage goes on. Later in the same chapter the ordeal ends when the tops of palm trees are seen on the horizon. The men, women, and children on the ship—exhausted and all but resigned to sinking beneath the sea—receive the news by an exhilarating cry from the bridge:

Admiral George Somers continued to scan the ocean, watching the waves but also looking for ships that might offer relief. He was exhausted, famished, and thirsty, but still he watched and called rudder adjustments to the helmsman below. On one of his sweeps, a movement far off caught his eye. At the crest of a swell he detected a flutter on the horizon to the west, slightly higher than the surface of the sea. The ship descended into a trough and he froze and waited for it to rise again. At the top he saw it again, and this time more clearly—above the waves, he was almost sure, he saw the tops of palm trees moving in the wind. He waited one more time as the ship dipped between swells. The consequences to morale of making a mistake would be devastating. They were far out in the Atlantic and sighting trees—while not impossible—was incredible. At the top of the next wave he saw them again and this time he was sure. Somers then let go a bellow that reached the ears of everyone on the ship, and he repeated his call, drawing out in a sustained holler the word “Land.” To the people on the Sea Venture it was a miraculous sound.