Coming in second: A thanksgiving thought


As the confetti was being swept up outside Progressive Field on the shores of Lake Erie following the seventh and deciding World Series between Cleveland and the newly minted World Champion Chicago Cubs, I found myself thinking about other second place finishers. In some cases, we clearly know and remember who lost as well as who won. In others, not so clearly.

If I mention, “David,” most of us remember larger-than-life, “Goliath.” Or, if we say, “Cavaliers,” NBA fans would quickly shout, “Golden State”. On the other hand, even if you happen to remember who won the 2016 Indy 500 or the Boston Marathon, it’s a pretty safe bet you won’t know who came in second. Ditto, today’s pop quiz: “The Mayflower.”

Who came in second?

For those who cherish American history, mention of the name quickly conjours up such words as Pilgrims, Plymouth Rock, Thanksgiving, and of course the name of the sturdy little ship that brought 101 “separatists” to our shores on Nov. 11, 1620. But, I’ll bet a turkey “wishbone” that very few know or remember her ill-fated sailing partner: The Speedwell, built in 1577 under the name Swiftsure in preparation for England’s war against Spain. She participated in the fight against the Spanish Armada, survived it all, was decommissioned in 1605 and then renamed Speedwell under new ownership of one Captain Blossom, who turned over command for the voyage to the New World to a Captain Reynolds.

In August 1620, the Speedwell left Delftshaven, a Rotterdam, Holland zip code, bound for South Hampton, England where she and her thirty-one Leiden separatist passengers would meet up with roughly 90 others aboard the Mayflower; all fleeing religious persecution by King James who disallowed people living in England to worship differently. What the Leiden group did not know: King James may have been a spoil sport, but the Speedwell was a leaker! And seven days later, when they arrived in South Hampton, they (and those on the Mayflower) faced a costly, discouraging two-week repair delay, during which they consumed much of the food meant for their voyage, while also paying costly added port fees and purchasing added supplies.

Historians seem divided as to the leak. It seems likely to some that the Speedwell had been “over-masted” when being re-fitted, and the weight of the main mast caused stress to the hull of the relatively small 60-ton ship. A passenger is said to have reported, more simplistically, that the leak was caused by “a loose two-foot board.” Oh, if only the separatists had had cable TV. A quick coat of “Flex Seal” – “seeps into cracks and holes, dries to a watertight, flexible, rubberized coating. Lasts for years. And now, in colors, including Pilgrim pastels.” If only, the Speedwell and the Mayflower might have sailed together to the New World and their eventual destiny: A “rock” on the western shore of Cape Cod Bay.

Back in South Hampton, the two ships finally left port later in August, but wouldn’t you know it, the Speedwell began taking on water again, causing both ships to return to dry land. This time in Dartsmouth, England. At this point, if the coin of the realm were not so tight, Captains Blossom and Reynolds should probably have fired the carpenters and hired new ones. However, that was not the case, and once final repairs (“I think we got it fixed real good this time, Captain”) had been made, the ships made sail again … for about 300 miles … when, you guessed it, the Speedwell began leaking once more.

Now totally frustrated, the two ships made about, returning to the port of Plymouth on the southern shores of England, where eleven or so passengers from the Speedwell transferred to the Mayflower which would eventually and successfully sail alone on Sept. 6 1620, wearily entering Cape Cod Bay 66 days later on Nov. 11.

Twenty separatists remained with the Speedwell, according to historians, and returned with it to London where it was sold at auction. Then, after being repaired for the fourth time, she actually made a number of successful voyages for her new owners, they say. But not to the New World. It was her replacement, the Fortune, which eventually followed, arriving at Plymouth Colony two-days short of a year later on Nov. 9 1621, thus winning (in my estimation), “second place” honors in the voyage to America and religious freedom.

Before I say Happy Thanksgiving, folks, there is still much to be thankful for, here’s an added thought:

n 1837, Robert Walter Weir was commissioned by Congress to paint an historical depiction of the Pilgrims. His painting was placed in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in December 1843. Known as The Embarkation of the Pilgrims, the painting is a scene on board the Speedwell while harbored in Delfshaven, Holland. The Embarkation of the Pilgrims is also depicted on the reverse of the 10,000 dollar bill (Federal Reserve Note) issued in 1918. Only five examples of this bill are known, and “none exist outside of institutional collections.” Source: Wikipedia

By Mel Grossman

Mel Grossman is a county resident and guest columnist.

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