By Reinhard Zollitsch
May 2008

“We have to do this again some time. This was so much fun,” I heard Nancy say after returning from our very first camping trip together, to Cape Cod. I could see it in her eyes too, and mine must have been beaming also.

It was the sixties, and I did not know I had met a “flower girl”, a Mayflower girl, to be specific, who could trace her family roots back to the 1620 arrival of the British Mayflower in Plymouth, Massachusetts. I was impressed, as I was by the courage, stamina and stubborn perseverance of the 102 souls aboard that ship arriving in the new world during the Nov./Dec. storms after 2 months at sea, then barely making it through the first winter.

Even in 1957 it took experienced, tough sailors to coax a by then totally antique, antiquated design/boat, the newly built replica Mayflower II, across “The Pond”. It was a gift of the British people to the Americans for their help in WWII, and was planned to become part of Plimoth Plantation.

That was just 6 years before our first visit to Plymouth, and I vividly remember reading about it in the newspapers back home in the old “Heimat”. (I came to the US from Germany in 1962, as a penniless graduate student, on a coal freighter from Rotterdam to Norfolk, Virginia.) I had been into boats and ocean crossings and early explorers for quite some time, which Nancy had noticed immediately, but fortunately for me found interesting. What a sweetheart – see what I mean?

I still remember one wonderful weekend in the summer of 1963 when both of us almost simultaneously suggested checking out “that boat” and having some serious fun in the sands and sun of Cape Cod while we were there. Even her parents thought this was a good idea, lent us their VW and camping gear, wished us well, and off we were on that special weekend.

First stop was Plymouth, as planned. We stepped on board Mayflower II and went to see Plimoth Plantation, where I had my Mayflower girl Nancy touch her ancestor Richard Warren's name on the ship's manifest. Then we headed out to the northern tip of Cape Cod, where the Pilgrims first landed. We romped in the dunes, swam till we turned blue, but warmed up again in our little VW Beetle on our way to Orleans/Chatham, the southern tip of the eastern shore of Cape Cod. I do not remember anything from my Monday 8:00 a.m. Summer School class, nor does Nancy.

That was 45 years ago; we got married the next year, got several graduate degrees, built a house, raised four kids, and I recently retired from teaching at the University of Maine after 42 years there. But neither I nor she ever forgot the fun we had on Cape Cod when we were younger.

With kids, our saltwater and dunes Cape Cod caper soon turned into a more remote, quiet, rural and more affordable summer vacation, camping on Prince Edward Island, Canada, or even closer to home at the family summer cottage on the coast in Corea, Maine.  As a matter of fact, that has not stopped, even with our kids now having moved to the far corners of the world. But this also seems like a very good time for the “old folks” to refresh some still warm memories.

It started when Nancy gave me Nathaniel Philbrick's new (2006) myth-busting book on the Pilgrims (with the not so original title Mayflower), and Warwick Charlton's much more sprightly written The Second Mayflower Adventure, the story of the planning, building and eventual sailing of the replica to America. Was she hinting at something? How sweet and subtle – I got it, my dear!

In Warwick Charlton's book I especially liked his account of the actual sail over from Plymouth, England in 1957. The only disappointment to me was learning that skipper Alan Villiers decided to drop down to the Canaries off Africa before heading across the Atlantic, i.e. taking the more circuitous, but safer southern, instead of the northern route, which the original Mayflower took - and that, after trying so hard to make everything about Mayflower II as authentic as possible.
Ah, well.

author and wife
Author with "flower girl" on Mayflower II

Anyway, one beautiful weekend in May 2008, Nancy and I were off again to Plymouth and beyond (our VW Beetle now upgraded to a VW Passat station wagon with my trusty Verlen Kruger sea canoe on top). Mayflower II was even more imposing now than 45 years ago.

Having seen John Cabot's 1497 Matthew in Boston in 1997; the replica Godspell built and sail-tested in Rockport, Maine for the 400-year celebration of the 1607 Jamestown, VA settlement; as well as Henry Hudson's 1609 Half Moon in Albany, NY in  2005, we marveled at the thin masts of Mayflower II, the long yards and the rakish up-turned bowsprit, but especially the immensely high stern.

ships masts
Thin masts, long yards and a very tall stern (Mayflower II)

On any boat, I am always fascinated by the many different ways the steering is accomplished: with pulleys and tackle here, a long staff on the Matthew, side rudder on the Viking ships, etc. And then there are the finer points of construction and navigation, which interest me.

I happened to overhear some landlubbery explanations to a school class by ladies clad in Pilgrim costumes. They looked so authentic and even spoke in a learned/fake 17th century British accent, which so discombobulated me that I did not have the courage to set them straight on several nautical matters.  But it was better that way, Nancy assured me; also, when seeing boats, I tend to have a hard time tearing myself away, and Nancy and I had a time plan, a loose one, at least.

Since I had straight-lined Plymouth Bay from Manomet Bluff to Gurnet Light on Duxbury Neck (on my 2005 canoe trip from Lake Champlain to New York City and on to Boston), I had brought along my boat this time to check out the inner harbor of Plymouth with all its tidal bays and side arms. But when we got off the Mayflower II, it suddenly started raining in buckets, and a fish dinner on the wharf in a glassed-in veranda sounded much more inviting.

Next morning took us, just as then, all the way up to the northern tip of Cape Cod, to Provincetown. The dunes along the northeastern Cape Cod National Seashore were just as pretty as in 1963, but the bay side was much more built up, and Provincetown was almost impossible to drive through – a crowded one-lane pedestrian zone, it seemed.

I managed to find a good put-in, though, for my boat, and was off exploring the knuckle and crooked finger into the bay with its two prominent lighthouses on Wood End and Long Point. My favorite stretch was the run from Long Point towards the tall, slender, granite Pilgrim Monument at the head of the harbor. I then paddled even deeper into the bay, but soon ran out of water and had to portage to the road, where my VW and favorite “chauffeur” were waiting.

joys of portaging
The joys of portaging (Provincetown)

The third night was again spent near Orleans/Chatham, but this time I especially wanted to see Chatham Harbor and paddle around the big tidal Pleasant Bay, where Samuel de Champlain had anchored on his quest for warmer climes after their 1604 settlement on St. Croix Island on the Maine/New Brunswick border had failed. They originally had even thought of sailing all the way to Florida, but ran out of time and steam, especially when hitting the nasty Pollack Rips off Monomoy Island.

These were the same rips that made Mayflower reverse course and run into Provincetown instead of heading for Virginia, or at least the Hudson River. When Champlain's party encountered hostile natives (Monomoyicks) in this area, even lost four men (not unprovoked I may add), they pulled up anchor and headed back north again, up to their very first choice for a settlement, up through Digby Gut, off the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia, and set up camp (Le Habitation) in Port Royal, near the mouth of the Annapolis River.

I had a great time checking out the entrance to Chatham Harbor with my nautical charts in hand. And what a challenging place this is, to come in from the sea, with breaking shallows everywhere, and the tide ripping in past the lighthouse.

Checking the Chatham channel on my charts (at Chatham Light)

I put in not far from there on a small sandy spot beside a public dock and poked my bow into most every cove and bight all the way back to Paw Wah Point in Orleans. It felt great paddling on historic waters and knowing what happened there. It gives a normal “Sunday paddle” another dimension, gives your mind something to think about while performing those repetitive, trance-inducing paddle strokes.

historic waters
Chatham/Pleasant Bay/Paw Wah Pt - on historic waters

I smiled from ear to ear seeing Nancy at the prearranged take-out at the agreed-upon time. It also took some good navigating on her part to find this dead-end dirt road small boat launch site. (No marinas for me! But you know that already!)

And then we still had an entire afternoon and evening together, a luxury I never have on my long and often lonely canoe trips, like paddling around Cape Breton Island in 2007, and up the western shore of Newfoundland in 2008. This is fun, even for a minimalist like me. “We have to do this again some time. This was so much fun!” I heard myself say to Nancy as I heaved my boat onto our car. She just beamed – and maybe we will...

Nathaniel Philbrick: Mayflower. Viking/Penguin Group, USA 2006.
Warwick Charlton: The Second Mayflower Adventure. Plimoth Plantation Press, Plymouth, MA, 2007

© Reinhard Zollitsch
Orono, Maine