Dangerous Shoals and Roaring Breakers

IT WAS A BEAUTIFUL late-fall morning—clear skies and light winds out of the northwest. There was a thin slice of moon overhead, gradually fading to nothingness as the sun rose behind them in the east. Up ahead to the west was what Jones believed to be the forearm of Cape Cod. Known to subsequent generations of mariners as the “back side” of the Cape, this almost thirty-mile stretch of barrier beach runs from north to south and is edged by dramatic hundred-foot-high cliffs of sand that must have been instantly recognizable to Jones’s pilots if they had been in this region before. Stretching behind the cliffs were rolling, tree-covered hills.

The Mayflower ’s passengers were, according to Bradford, “not a little joyful.” The clarity of the atmosphere on a crisp autumn day in New England shrinks the distances and accentuates the colors, and the Pilgrims were “much comforted…[by] seeing so goodly a land, and wooded to the brink of the sea.” Just to make certain, Jones tacked the Mayflower and stood in for shore. After an hour or so, all agreed that this was indeed Cape Cod.

Now they had a decision to make. Where should they go? They were well to the north of their intended destination near the mouth of the Hudson River. And yet there were reasons to consider the region around Cape Cod as a possible settlement site. In the final chaotic months before their departure from England, Weston and others had begun to insist that a more northern site in New England—which was the new name for what are now the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont—was a better place to settle. As Cape Cod’s name indicated, this region was renowned for the large schools of cod that frequented these shores. Come spring, hundreds of codfishing vessels from England, France, Holland, and other European countries plied the waters of New England, particularly to the northeast off modern Maine. A colony established on Cape Cod would be well positioned to take advantage of this profitable fishery. But when the Mayflower had departed from England, it had been impossible to secure a patent for this region, since what came to be called the Council for New England had not yet been established by the king. If they were to settle where they had legally been granted land, they must sail south for the mouth of the Hudson River 220 miles away.

Master Jones had his own problems to consider. Given the poor health of his passengers and crew, his first priority was to get these people ashore as quickly as possible—regardless of what their patent dictated. If the wind had been out of the south, he could easily have sailed north to the tip of Cape Cod to what is known today as Provincetown Harbor. With a decent southerly breeze and a little help from the tide, they’d be there in a matter of hours. But the wind was from the north. Their only option was to run with it to the Hudson River. If the wind held, they’d be there in a couple of days. So Jones headed south.

Unfortunately, there was no reliable English chart of the waters between Cape Cod and the Hudson. Little had changed since 1614, when John Smith’s experiences in the region had caused him to dismiss all existing charts as “so much waste paper, though they cost me more.” Smith’s own chart of New England only went as far south as the back side of the Cape—where the Mayflower had made landfall—and provided no help for a voyage south. Except for what knowledge his pilots might have of this coast—which appears to have been minimal—Jones was sailing blind.

The master of the Mayflower had no way of knowing about the specific hazards ahead, but he knew enough to make extensive use of his sounding leads, of which he had two: the deep-sea or “dipsy” lead, which weighed between forty and one hundred pounds and was equipped with 600 feet of line, and the smaller “hand-lead,” just seven to fourteen pounds with 120 feet of line. As the Mayflower sailed south, the leadsman was in near-perpetual motion: heaving the lead, letting the line pay out, calling out the depth, then drawing in the line and heaving the lead again. The depth off Cape Cod hovers at about 120 feet—at the very limit of the hand-lead—until about three miles offshore, where the bottom plummets to more than 300 feet. Running roughly parallel to shore, this line of sudden drop-off is known as the Edge. As Jones made his way along the back side of the Cape, he more than likely followed the Edge as if it were an invisible lifeline south.

For the next five hours, the Mayflower slipped easily along. After sixty-five days of headwinds and storms, it must have been a wonderful respite for the passengers, who crowded the chilly, sun-drenched deck to drink in their first view of the New World. But for Master Jones, it was the beginning of the most tension-filled portion of the passage. Any captain would rather have hazarded the fiercest North Atlantic gale than risk the uncharted perils of an unknown coast. Until the Mayflower was quietly at anchor, Jones would get little sleep.

Jones stood perched on the aftmost deck of his ship—a narrow, razorback ridge of planking called the poop deck, just nine feet wide and about twenty-three feet above the water, with a taffrail adding another four feet of height. Here, two and a half stories up, with the expansive girth of the Mayflower —twenty or so feet at her widest—before him, Jones stared out nervously toward the shore to starboard, awaiting the latest word on the sea’s depth.

The ship’s helmsman was stationed in steerage, a tiny, suffocating space below and forward of the poop deck. Jones and his pilots could communicate with the helmsman through an open hatch above the helmsman’s head. Peering down at him, they could see the ship’s compass mounted in a candle-equipped binnacle, just forward of the helmsman and aft of the mizzenmast. Instead of a wheel, the helmsman steered the ship with a long vertical pole, called a whipstaff, that attached to the tiller through a hole in the steerage deck.

They sailed south on an easy reach, with the sandy shore of Cape Cod within sight, past the future locations of Wellfleet, Eastham, Orleans, and Chatham. Throughout the morning, the tide was in their favor, but around 1 p.m., it began to flow against them. Then the depth of the water dropped alarmingly, as did the wind. Suddenly, the Mayflower was in the midst of what has been called “one of the meanest stretches of shoal water on the American coast”: Pollack Rip.

Pollack Rip is part of an intricate and ever-changing maze of shoals and sandbars stretching between the elbow of Cape Cod and the tip of Nantucket Island, fifteen or so miles to the south. The huge volume of water that moves back and forth between the ocean to the east and Nantucket Sound to the west rushes and swirls amid these shoals with a ferocity that is still, almost four hundred years later, terrifying to behold. It’s been claimed that half the wrecks along the entire Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States have occurred in this area. In 1606, the French explorer Samuel Champlain attempted to navigate these waters in a small pinnace. This was Champlain’s second visit to the Cape, and even though he took every precaution, his vessel fetched up on a shoal and was almost pounded to pieces before he somehow managed to float her free and sail into Nantucket Sound. Champlain’s pinnace drew four feet; the deeply laden Mayflower drew twelve.

The placid heave of the sea had been transformed into a churning maelstrom as the outflowing tide cascaded over the shoals ahead. And with the wind dying to almost nothing, Jones had no way to extricate his ship from the danger, especially since what breeze remained was from the north, pinning the Mayflower against the rip. “[T]hey fell amongst dangerous shoals and roaring breakers,” Bradford wrote, “and they were so far entangled therewith as they conceived themselves in great danger.” It was approaching 3 p.m., with only another hour and a half of daylight left. If Jones hadn’t done it already, he undoubtedly prepared an anchor for lowering—ordering the sailors to extract the hemp cable from below and to begin carefully coiling, or flaking, the thick rope on the forecastle head. If the wind completely deserted them, they might be forced to spend the night at the edge of the breakers. But anchoring beside Pollack Rip is never a good idea. If the ocean swell should rise or a storm should kick up from the north, any vessel anchored there would be driven fatally onto the shoals.

Eleven years earlier, Stephen Hopkins had been a passenger aboard the Sea Venture —a ship bound for Jamestown that wrecked on the coral-studded shore of Bermuda. As a nobleman wrote in a letter that subsequently became a source for Shakespeare’s storm scene in The Tempest, the water pouring in through the leaking hull and decks was terrifying, but it was the screams of the “women and passengers not used to such hurly and discomforts” that none of them would ever forget. On the afternoon of November 9, 1620, with the breakers at Pollack Rip thundering in his ears, Hopkins must have begun to wonder whether he was about to hear those terrible cries again.

Just when it seemed they might never extricate themselves from the shoals, the wind began to change, gradually shifting in a clockwise direction to the south. This, combined with a fair tide, was all Master Jones needed. By sunset at 4:35 p.m., the Mayflowerwas well to the northwest of Pollack Rip.

With the wind building from the south, Jones made a historic decision. They weren’t going to the Hudson River. They were going back around Cape Cod to New England.

By 5 p.m., it was almost completely dark. Not wanting to run into any more shoals, Jones elected to heave to—standard procedure on an unknown coast at night. With her main topsail aback, the Mayflower drifted with the tide, four or five miles off present-day Chatham, waiting for dawn.

In the meantime, all was bustle and commotion belowdecks. The news that they were headed to New England instead of the Hudson River put the passengers in an uproar. As they all knew, their patent did not technically apply to a settlement north of the Hudson. Some of the Strangers, no doubt led by Stephen Hopkins, who had unsuccessfully participated in an uprising eleven years before in Bermuda, made “discontented and mutinous speeches,” insisting that “when they came ashore they would use their own liberty, for none had power to command them.” It’s likely that Hopkins was joined by John Billington, who subsequently established a reputation as the colony’s leading malcontent and rabble-rouser.

No matter who were the agitators, it was now clear that the future of the settlement was, once again, in serious peril. The Strangers were about half the passengers, and unlike the Leideners, who were united by powerful and long-standing bonds, they had little holding them together except, in some cases, a growing reluctance to live in a community dominated by religious radicals. On the other hand, some of the Strangers, including the Mayflower ’s governor, Christopher Martin, had strong ties to the Merchant Adventurers in London; in fact, passenger William Mullins was one of them. These Strangers recognized that the only way for the settlement to succeed financially was if everyone worked together. Although Martin had shown nothing but contempt for the Leideners at the beginning of the voyage, the disturbing developments off Cape Cod may have created an uneasy alliance between him and the passengers from Holland. Before they landed, it was essential that they all sign a formal and binding agreement of some sort. Over the course of the next day, they hammered out what has come to be known as the Mayflower Compact.

It is deeply ironic that the document many consider to mark the beginning of what would one day be called the United States came from a people who had more in common with a cult than a democratic society. It was true that Pastor Robinson had been elected by the congregation. But once he’d been chosen, Robinson’s power and position had never been in doubt. More a benevolent dictator than a democratically elected official, Robinson had shrewdly and compassionately nurtured the spiritual well-being of his congregation. And yet, even though they had existed in a theocratic bubble of their own devising, the Pilgrims recognized the dangers of mixing temporal and spiritual authority. One of the reasons they had been forced to leave England was that King James had used the ecclesiastical courts to impose his own religious beliefs. In Holland, they had enjoyed the benefits of a society in which the division between church and state had been, for the most part, rigorously maintained. They could not help but absorb some decidedly Dutch ways of looking at the world. For example, marriage in Holland was a civil ceremony, and so it would be—much to the dismay of English authorities—in Plymouth Colony.

As had been true for more than a decade, it was Pastor John Robinson who pointed them in the direction they ultimately followed. In his farewell letter, Robinson had anticipated the need to create a government based on civil consent rather than divine decree. With so many Strangers in their midst, there was no other way. They must “become a body politic, using amongst yourselves civil government,” i.e., they must all agree to submit to the laws drawn up by their duly elected officials. Just as a spiritual covenant had marked the beginning of their congregation in Leiden, a civil covenant would provide the basis for a secular government in America.

Written with a crystalline brevity, the Mayflower Compact bears the unmistakable signs of Robinson’s influence, and it is worth quoting in full:

Having undertaken, for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith and honor of our King and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do these present solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

Given the future course of New England and the United States, there is a temptation to make more out of the Mayflower Compact than there actually was. In truth, the compact made no attempt to propose that they now alter the form of local government that existed in any town back in England. What made the document truly extraordinary was that it applied to a group of people who were three thousand miles from their mother country. The physical reality of all that space—and all the terror, freedom, and insularity it fostered—informed everything that occurred in the days and years ahead.

In the end, the Mayflower Compact represented a remarkable act of coolheaded and pragmatic resolve. They were nearing the end of a long and frightening voyage. They were bound for a place about which they knew essentially nothing. It was almost winter. They were without sufficient supplies of food. Some of them were sick and two had already died. Still others were clamoring for a rebellion that would have meant the almost instantaneous collapse of their settlement and, most likely, their deaths. The Leideners might have looked to their military officer, Miles Standish, and ordered him to subdue the rebels. Instead, they put pen to paper and created a document that ranks with the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution as a seminal American text.

But there was one more critical decision to make. They must choose a leader. The Leideners were barely a majority, but they could be counted on to vote as a bloc, effectively guaranteeing that their leader would not be the Mayflower ’s governor, Christopher Martin. “[L]et your wisdom and godliness appear,” Robinson had advised, “not only in choosing such persons as do entirely love and will promote the common good, but also in yielding unto them all due honor and obedience in their lawful administrations.”

In lieu of Martin, the only other person aboard the Mayflower who had played a central role in organizing the voyage was John Carver. Unlike his fellow purchasing agent, Robert Cushman, Carver had managed to remain untainted by the controversy surrounding Weston’s last-minute reconfiguration of the agreement with the Merchant Adventurers. Whereas Cushman was passionate and impulsive in temperament, Carver was, according to one account, “a gentleman of singular piety, rare humility, and great condescendency.” He was also wealthy and had contributed much of his personal estate to the congregation in Leiden and to this voyage. He and his wife, Katherine, who had buried two children in Leiden, had brought five servants on the Mayflower, one of whom was the death-defying John Howland. John Carver, it was decided, would be their governor.

As the Pilgrims formulated their compact, Jones pointed the Mayflower north. With disease and dissension running rife among the passengers, Jones did everything he could to get every possible knot of speed out of his old ship. The Mayflower was equipped with six sails: five square sails, including a small spritsail off the bowsprit, and a lateenrigged mizzen (a triangular sail set on a diagonal spar). The three lower sails—the mizzen, main course, and fore course—possessed additional sections of canvas called bonnets that were laced to the bottoms of the sails in moderate weather to gather more wind. With her bonnets laced tight, the Mayflower charged up the back side of Cape Cod.

By nightfall, the Mayflower was nearing the tip of Cape Cod. Master Jones once again hove to. They wanted to enter Provincetown Harbor, known to them as Cape Cod Harbor, as close as possible to sunrise so that they’d have most of the day for exploring the surrounding countryside. But before they could set foot on land, every man who was healthy enough to write his name or, if he couldn’t write, scratch out an X, must sign the compact.

They awakened very early on the morning of November 11, 1620. Sunrise was at 6:55 A.M., and the passengers probably assembled in the Mayflower ’s great cabin—approximately thirteen by seventeen feet, with two windows in the stern and one on either side. Beginning with John Carver and ending with the servant Edward Leister, a total of forty-one men signed the compact. Only nine adult males did not sign the compact—some had been hired as seamen for only a year, while others were probably too sick to put pen to paper. In accordance with the cultural and legal norms of the times, no women signed the document. The ceremony ended with the official selection of a leader. Bradford informs us that “they chose or rather confirmed, Mr. John Carver (a man godly and well approved amongst them) their Governor for that year.”

In the meantime, Master Jones guided the Mayflower into Provincetown Harbor, one of the largest and safest natural anchorages in New England. Tucked within the curled wrist of the Cape, the harbor is a vast watery amphitheater as many as four miles across in some sections. Jones estimated that it could accommodate at least a thousand ships.

But on the morning of November 11, they were the only vessel in the harbor. Jones found a deep spot with good holding ground hard up on what is known today as Long Point. No matter from what direction the wind blew, the Mayflower was now safely at anchor, and Jones, exhausted from two days of struggle along the New England coast, must have soon retired to his cabin.



Many of the passengers were no doubt eager to set foot on land once again. All were thankful that they had finally arrived safely in America. And yet it was difficult for them to look to the future with anything but dread. There were three thousand miles of ocean between them and home. The closest English communities in America were more than five hundred miles away. They knew that Master Jones was already impatient to get them off his ship and head the Mayflower back for home. But the land that surrounded them was low and sandy—a most unpromising place for a plantation. Bradford called it “a hideous and desolate wilderness.” They knew they had friends back in Holland, but if Thomas Weston’s reaction was any indication, the Merchant Adventurers in London could not be counted on for much support—financial or otherwise. Of more immediate concern was the attitude of the Native people of this place, who they feared were “readier to fill their sides full of arrows than otherwise.”

Years later, Bradford looked back to that first morning in America with wonder. “But here I cannot stay and make a pause,” he wrote, “and stand half amazed at this poor people’s present condition….[T]hey had now no friends to welcome them nor inns to entertain or refresh their weatherbeaten bodies; no houses or much less towns to repair to, to seek for succor.” In the next four months, half of them would be dead. But what astonished Bradford was that half of them would somehow survive. “What could now sustain them,” Bradford wrote, “but the spirit of God and His Grace? May not and ought not the children of these fathers rightly say: ‘Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and He heard their voice and looked on their adversity.’”

It was time to venture ashore. They had brought with them an open boat that could be both rowed and sailed, known as a shallop. About thirty-five feet long, it had been cut up into four pieces and stored below—where it had been “much bruised and shattered” over the course of the voyage. It would take many days for the carpenter to assemble and rebuild it. For the time being, they had the smaller ship’s boat. Loaded with sixteen well-armed men, the boat made its way to shore. It was only a narrow neck of land, but for these sea-weary men, it was enough. “[T]hey fell upon their knees,” Bradford wrote, “and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth, their proper element.”

They wandered over hills of sand that reminded them of the Downs in Holland. Amid the hollows of the dunes they found growths of birch, holly, ash, and walnut trees. With darkness coming, they loaded their boat with red cedar. The freshly sawed wood “smelled very sweet and strong,” and that night aboard the Mayflower, for the first time in perhaps weeks, they enjoyed the pleasures of a warm fire.

It had been, for the most part, a reassuring introduction to the New World. Despite the apparent sterility of the landscape, they had found more trees than they would have come across back in Holland and even coastal England. But there had been something missing: nowhere had they found any people.

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