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.
They throw overboard much luggage, beer, oil, cider, wine, vinegar, and all the cannon on the starboard side of the Sea Venture. The men are very tired, having worked from Tuesday until Friday morning without sleep or food. And at Friday noon there is now ten feet of water above the ballast, twice the depth on Tuesday. William Strachey says there is a “general determination” to shut the hatches, commend their souls to God, and commit the ship to the mercy of the seas.
On Tuesday morning, July 25, 1609, Governor Gates divides all the crew and passengers, including gentlemen and except for the women, totaling 140, into three groups in the front, middle, and rear of the ship. John Rolfe, along with the others, is to either bail with buckets or operate the pumps in shifts of one hour of work alternating with one hour of rest. John Rolfe and the others do this for the next 72 hours as the Sea Venture rolls and pitches. This is an extraordinary measure, as gentlemen not only aren’t used to but don’t do manual labor. So the Governor’s requirement that all men participate equally was a desperate move.
William Strachey continues: “The men might be seen to labor … for life, and the better sort, even our governor and admiral themselves, not refusing their turn….” They work “with tired bodies and wasted spirits” for three days and nights. Strachey continues: “During all this time, the heavens looked so black upon us that it was not possible” to see a star at night or a sunbeam by day.
A sailing ship like the Sea Venture is built by laying planks next to and overlapping each other. The spaces or joints between them are caulked or filled with a tar and fiber material called oakum. William Strachey relates that they have five feet of water above the ballast and are in danger of sinking. Crewmen with candles search the hold for leaks and can’t find any holes, just the leaking joints.
“[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.”
William Strachey writes a long letter describing the voyage to Virginia on the Sea Venture to a lady in London, thought to be Lady Sara Smythe, wife of Sir Thomas Smythe, Treasurer of the Virginia Company of London and organizer of the details of the expeditions to Virginia. He starts by describing sailing from Plymouth Sound on June 2, 1609, and the ships keeping in sight of each other until St. James Day, Monday, July 24, 1609. He says that Captain Newport reckons they are only seven or eight days from Cape Henry on the Virginia coast at the time. Strachey relates that, starting the night before, Sunday night, “the clouds gathered thick upon us, and the winds singing and whistling most unusually” cause them to cast off the small unnamed ketch they are towing.
William Strachey, who was aboard the Sea Venture with John Rolfe, was born in 1572 in Essex of minor gentry. He entered Cambridge University in 1588. In 1605 he was in London as a member of Gray’s Inn where he studied law. He is a stockholder in Blackfriars Theater and has many friends in literary circles. He is close friends with John Donne, Thomas Campion, and Ben Jonson. He certainly has friends in common with and probably knows William Shakespeare. In 1606 Strachey became secretary to the English ambassador to Constantinople, Turkey, and moved there. They didn’t get along and Strachey was fired. He returned to London in 1608. He buys two shares in the Virginia Company of London, and in 1609 he sails on the Sea Venture to Jamestown.
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.