The ship that carried the Pilgrims has been long lost to history, but its recreation — the Mayflower II — continues to keep alive the story of the 1620 voyage and its undaunted passengers.
If you happened to drive past the waterfront in Plymouth, Massachusetts, on August 7 this year, you couldn’t help but notice the crowd. On most summer days, area visitors bustle around Water Street and Pilgrim Memorial State Park, peering down at the portico-covered Plymouth Rock, climbing Cole’s Hill to study the statue of Wampanoag leader Massasoit, or browsing for souvenirs at one of the Pilgrim-themed gift shops. But on that sunny Wednesday, all eyes were fastened on the sea. Suddenly on the horizon the Mayflower II emerged to cheers, signaling the end of eight long months of shipyard repairs in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Sailing proudly into Plymouth Bay, this iconic wooden ship, with its curved hull, rugged masts, and towering crow’s nest, triggers an almost involuntary emotional response—even with a tow providing the ship’s momentum. Although it’s not the original Mayflower that brought the Pilgrims to America in search of religious freedom back in 1620 (it was likely used later for scrap wood), the 106-foot-long Mayflower II—a near-perfect copy, “from the solid oak timbers and tarred hemp rigging, to the wood and horn lanterns and hand-colored maps”—sailed from Brixham, England, in 1957.
Plimoth Plantation, founded in 1947 as a model of the original Pilgrim settlement, agreed to take ownership stateside. In the decades since, the Mayflower II and her staff of interpreters have allowed thousands of visitors to step aboard her creaking planks and imagine how it felt to be one of the 102 Pilgrims crowded belowdecks (with all of their provisions and possessions, as well) for two months as they headed into an uncertain future in the New World.
To keep a 17th-century-style vessel scrubbed and seaworthy, Plimoth Plantation, led by the museum’s Maritime Artisans department manager and ship’s captain Peter Arenstam, needs both craftsmanship and money. The cost of this year’s inspection and repairs—the first leg of a scheduled seven-year, $2 million restoration in anticipation of the 400th anniversary of the original landing—shot from an estimated $80,000 to nearly $400,000 after significant rot was uncovered in the hull and framework, leading to a desperate call for period-authentic white oak and more than doubling the ship’s time in dry dock. To help fund the effort, a campaign titled “S.O.S. — Save Our Ship” is under way to ensure that the Mayflower II will continue to educate and inspire generations to come.
Back at the pier, a woman in a navy-blue Plymouth sweatshirt snapped a photo of the docked ship and turned to her neighbor. “I never realized how much I’d miss seeing her here,” she said. “Boy, is it good to have her back. Plymouth just isn’t Plymouth without the Mayflower.”