A Hurricane, Cyclone, or Tempest

Today the word cyclone is used in the South Pacific for what we usually call a hurricane. In 1609 England, the word is tempest.

After ten weeks on board and seven weeks of smooth sailing on John Rolfe’s first ocean crossing, he experiences the storm of the century, the worst tempest that any of the seasoned voyagers on the Sea Venture have ever seen.

Smooth Sailing for Seven Weeks Before The Tempest

Calm Seas Before The Tempest

For seven weeks the voyage from London, England, to Virginia on the Sea Venture is relatively smooth. John and Sarah Rolfe have now been on board for 10 weeks including the time in English coastal waters and English ports.

Sarah Rolfe is probably experiencing morning sickness from her pregnancy. There is little or no privacy. And the food gets worse as they run out of fresh produce. Still, seven weeks of calm seas and good weather is wonderful.

Then the winds come up ….

The Third Supply Fleet Decides to Avoid Spanish Controlled Seas

Admiral Sir George Somers who commands the fleet of the Third Supply, General Sir Thomas Gates the new Governor of Virginia, and Captain Newport of the Sea Venture decide to try to avoid the Spanish controlled waters and cut across the Atlantic Ocean farther north than usual, but not quite as far north as Captain Samuel Argall is exploring at the same time.

Second Charter of the Virginia Company of London

On May 23, 1609, King James I signs the second charter of the Virginia Company of London, updating it. Among other changes, the territory of the Virginia Company of London is now 200 miles north and south of Point Comfort on the Chesapeake Bay.

Three Weeks After Leaving London, the Sea Venture Finally Sails From Falmouth, England, and Leaves English Waters

Shortly after leaving Plymouth, England, the winds change and the nine vessels of the Third Supply fleet, including the Sea Venture, have to put in at Falmouth, farther along the south coast of England. Six days later, on June 8, 1609, the winds are favorable and the fleet sails again.

Because of the distance from London to the south England ports, the loading of final provisions, and the need to wait for favorable winds to sail south along the European coast, the journey has now been more than three weeks and they are just leaving English waters.

Loading More Provisions in Plymouth, England

Plymouth, England, Eddystone Lighthouse

On May 20, 1609, the Third Supply fleet, including the Sea Venture, arrives in Plymouth on the southern coast of England, a port protected by the Isle of Wight. It has taken five days to sail down the Thames River to the English Channel, then south and west along the Channel to Plymouth. In Plymouth the fleet of seven ships from London meets up with its other two members so that all nine ships are together. Now the final provisions are put on board. The main food supplies are hogsheads, or large casks, of five tons of salt beef, casks of salt pork and salt cod, tons of hard biscuits, beans, oatmeal, flour, butter, cheese, and beer. The water of the time isn’t usually clean and pure, so people drink weak beer or some other drink with a little alcohol in it to kill the germs and parasites.

All is in readiness and on the evening of June 2, 1609, the winds and tides are favorable and the fleet sails from Plymouth.

Other Ships of the Fleet

John Ratcliffe

The second largest ship of the fleet is the Diamond. It is the vice admiral and is commanded by Captain John Ratcliffe who was captain of the Discovery, one of the three ships that arrived in Jamestown in 1607. The Falcon is the rear admiral or third largest ship of the fleet. It is commanded by Captain John Martin, one of the original Virginia settlers who returned to England in 1608 and is on his way back to Jamestown. The Falcon’s sailing master is Francis Nelson, who went to Jamestown in 1608 as captain of the Phoenix, a pinnace that took 40 settlers to Jamestown as part of the First Supply.

The fourth ship in the fleet is the Blessing captained by Gabriel Archer. The fifth ship is the Unity. The sixth ship is the Lion. The seventh ship of the fleet is the Swallow. On the Swallow as sailing master is the nephew of Admiral George Somers, Matthew Somers. The eighth ship is the pinnace Virginia which was the first ship built in North America in the failed Popham colony at Sagadahoc, Maine. It is commanded by Captain James Davies who was on the expedition to Maine. The ninth ship is a small unnamed ketch.

Other Passengers of Note on the Sea Venture


Two Indians, Namontack and Matchumps, who earlier were sent to England by John Smith, are returning to Virginia. Reverend Richard Bucke, an Anglican minister, age 27, is on board. Also on board are Captain George Yeardley whose wife Temperance sails on the Falcon; William Pierce whose wife Joan and 10 year old daughter Jane sail on the Blessing; Mistress Horton and her maid Elizabeth Persons; William Strachey, the gentleman poet who knows Ben Jonson and other literary types and who will become Secretary of the colony and who writes a detailed account of his adventures; Ralph Hamor, who will become Secretary of the colony after Strachey; Stephen Hopkins, a preachy Puritan layman who will later go to the Plymouth Colony with his wife and children but who leaves them behind in England for his Virginia adventure; and Silvester Jourdain, who writes an account of his adventures.

Sailing Aboard the Flagship, the Sea Venture

A sailing ship

On May 15, 1609, John Rolfe and his wife Sarah board the Sea Venture. After all have boarded the Sea Venture and six other ships at the wharf in London’s Woolwich docks, the seven ships sail down the Thames River toward the English Channel. It takes several days. Then the ships sail west along the English Channel to the port of Plymouth to meet the other two ships, the small pinnace Virginia and the even smaller unnamed ketch, to bring the fleet to a total of nine ships.

The flagship, admiral, and largest ship in the fleet is the Sea Venture, commanded by Captain Christopher Newport. Newport also captained the Susan Constant, the flagship of the first fleet of three ships to arrive in Jamestown in 1607. He also captained the First Supply and the Second Supply. This, the Third Supply, is Captain Newport’s fourth crossing to Virginia. Other leaders on board are the Admiral of the fleet and fleet commander, Sir George Somers, and the new Governor of Virginia, General Sir Thomas Gates.

John Rolfe and Sarah Rolfe Sail on the Same Ship, Unlike Other Couples, and Intend to Settle in Virginia

John Rolfe, as played by Christian Bale

John Rolfe’s ambition, bravery, and commitment all show in his decision to bring his wife along with him. Most of the men consider themselves adventurers, not settlers, and leave their wives in England. Since Sarah Rolfe is recently pregnant, she would be especially uncomfortable on the journey. Sarah Rolfe is, perhaps, even braver than John Rolfe, as she is one of very few women to go to Virginia.

John Rolfe is fortunate that his wife accompanies him on the same ship, the Sea Venture. Edward Eason and his wife also sail together on the Sea Venture. But several other adventures on the Sea Venture, William Pierce and Captain George Yeardley, bring their wives along to Virginia, but their wives sail on different ships. William Pierce’s wife Joan and his 10-year-old daughter Jane sail on the Blessing. Some years later, the daughter Jane Pierce will become very important to John Rolfe. Captain Yeardley’s wife Temperance sails on the Falcon.

Perhaps having his wife with him on the flagship of the fleet is an indication of John Rolfe’s people skills which would later show themselves in his political and marketing astuteness.

The Gulf Stream and Other Ocean Currents and Winds

You’ve heard of the Gulf Stream I’m sure. It’s a warm current that flows from the Caribbean north along the eastern seaboard of the United States and then turns east across the North Atlantic Ocean to England. The clockwise rotation of the current continues south along the west coast of Europe and North Africa, and then turns west across the Atlantic towards the Caribbean to complete a circle of the Atlantic Ocean north of the equator. The prevailing winds follow the current and rotate clockwise as well.

In good weather, the journey from England to Virginia takes approximately 16 weeks, or four months, almost one-third of a year, going with the currents and prevailing winds. The journey is uncomfortable at best.

The Sea Venture Is Square Rigged

Square Rigged Sailing Ship

Sailing ships in 1609 do not have engines or motors, oars, or GPS. They are entirely at the mercy of the wind, waves, and tides. The ships sailing in the Atlantic are square rigged rather than triangular lateen rigged as is often the case in the Mediterranean Sea. Square rigged sails do very well when the wind is behind the ship. Because the Atlantic Ocean had steady wind patterns, this was an advantage. Triangular lateen rigged ships are more maneuverable but much slower when there is a steady wind behind the ship.

Shipboard Accommodations Aboard the Sea Venture

Shipboard accommodations

John Rolfe is facing what is expected to be a 16 week journey aboard a crowded, sailing ship. At about 100 feet long overall from the bowsprit to the aft of the main deck, or slightly less than the length of six Chrysler 300 sedans, the Sea Venture is the largest ship in the fleet. It carries 153 people, 118 passengers and 35 crew, plus supplies for 16 weeks of sailing and for many months of living in Virginia. Of course, there is no dining room, no bathroom, and no entertainment. It is nothing like a modern cruise ship. There is little to do, and passengers usually have to stay below deck so the sailors have room for their sailing duties.

John Rolfe’s Committed Decision

John Rolfe planting tobacco

John Rolfe is ambitious, brave, and committed to his goal and his enterprise. He has to be, as he is facing a dangerous voyage and dicey conditions in Virginia where so many have already died in the previous two years. Rolfe would have known about the large proportion of deaths among the adventurers from disease and Indian attack, as returning ships told the news. Rolfe is also the only person going to Virginia with the intent to grow tobacco and make it into a profitable export crop.