John Rolfe knew there was risk involved in his first ocean crossing and also in the colony of Virginia from disease and Indian attack. He accepted and embraced that risk and took his wife along. He probably didn’t think much about the risk of a tempest, a storm yes, but a tempest, no. I imagine shipwreck was far from an expected risk. And castaway on a deserted island for nearly 10 months, he probably didn’t imagine. Yet John Rolfe accepted all the risks, both expected and unexpected, and continued on after disaster.
Eventually, William Strachey’s account of the tempest, castaways on a deserted island, and St. Elmo’s fire will be circulated around London and inspire The Tempest by William Shakespeare.
Around noon on Friday, July 28, 1609, Admiral Sir George Somers who is on watch and has been for three days and three nights cries “Land.” Admiral Somers and Captain Newport know where they were, and it is not good. They have been blown by the tempest near an area we now call the Bermuda Triangle and are approaching the dangerous and dreaded islands they know as the Devil’s Isles.
These islands are uninhabited and more feared and avoided by sea travelers than any other place in the world. The Devil’s Isles are legendary in that it is known that all who go there have terrible experiences. Besides shipwreck, there are tempests, thunders, and fearful things seen and heard.
Silvester Jourdain relates that those who have a private stock of alcoholic beverages on board the Sea Venture fetch it and toast their friends and take leave of them until they meet again in the next world.
Another passenger, Silvester Jourdain describes the tempest which hit the Sea Venture thus:
“… we were taken with a most sharp and cruel storm …which did not only separate us from the residue of our fleet … but with the violent working of the seas our ship became so shaken, torn, and leaked that she received so much water as covered two tier of hogsheads above the ballast; that our men stood up to the middles with buckets … and kettles to bail out the water and continually pumped for three days and three nights together without any intermission; and yet the water seemed rather to increase than to diminish. Insomuch that all our men, being utterly spent … were even resolved, without any hope of their lives … to have committed themselves to the mercy of the sea … seeing no help nor hope … that [they] would escape … present sinking.”
“[A] dreadful storm and hideous began to blow from out [of] the northeast, which swelling and roaring, as it were, by fits, some hours with more violence than others, at length did beat all light from heaven, which like an hell of darkness turned black upon us … the terrible cries and murmurs of the winds … such unmerciful tempest … that it worketh upon the whole … body, and most loathsomely affecteth all the powers thereof.
“For four and twenty hours the storm in a restless tumult had blown so exceedingly as we could not apprehend in our imaginations any possibility of greater violence. Yet did we still find it not only more terrible but more constant, fury added to fury, and one storm urging a second more outrageous than the former ….
“It could not be said to rain. The waters like whole rivers did flood in the air…. Winds and seas were as mad as fury and rage could make them. For mine own part, I had been in some storms before … upon the coast of Barbary and Algier … and … in the Adriatic Gulf…. Yet all that I had ever suffered gathered together might not hold comparison with this. There was not a moment in which the sudden splitting or instant oversetting of the ship was not expected.
“How be it this was not all. It pleased God to bring a greater affliction yet upon us, for in the beginning of the storm we had received … a mighty leak, and the ship in every joint almost having spewed out her oakum before we were aware.”
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.