The sea spray was coming over the gunwale (pronounced “Gun’l”). At first I thought we were passing through a momentary squall, so I slid deeper into the mummy bag to hide from the rude drops of rain that were pelting my face. When I realized the pellets of water were not coming in a steady attack, but rather in an advance-and-retreat pattern I knew it wasn’t rain. Unzipping the sleeping bag and setting up, I looked through the deck railing to see the Atlantic Ocean rolling six feet below me. As another blast of sea spray caught me in the face I realized I had gone asleep in 21st century America and woken up in the fifteen hundreds.
Sir Walter Raleigh was granted a charter in 1584 to establish a colony on North America to be known as Virginia. The charter told Raleigh that he had seven years to establish a settlement or lose his right to colonize.
After a series of blunders and missteps by the colonists, one small armada, under the guidance of John White, was able to bring 115 settlers to the north shore of Roanoke Island. On one of these ships, The Elizabeth, were the parents of yet-to-be-born Virginia Dare, Eleanor and Ananias Dare. Virginia Dare was destined to become the first white child born on the newly discovered continent.
When White and a small crew returned to England to fetch some more settlers as well as badly needed supplies, war between Britain and Spain broke out. Being stuck in England with all sea worthy ships dedicated to the fighting, White and his charges waited out the war for two years. When they were finally able to return to the New World his son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter had all disappeared along with the entire population of settlers left there two years earlier. They became the stuff of legend – a legend known as The Lost Colony.
On Roanoke Island sits the location of The Lost Colony. Nearby is a re-creation of that first settlement and the re-creation is called Festival Park. Populated by living history, individuals portray settlers, shopkeepers, blacksmiths, store owners and more. Nearby sits The Elizabeth II, a full-size working, sailing replica of the first ship to bring the settlers over in the 16th century.
When Festival Park Foundation contacted me about photographing the Elizabeth II I hesitated. Nothing fun about shooting a sailing ship tied up to a dock – no matter how pretty. When they told me they were taking the ship to sea for three days before “winterizing” it I jumped at the chance to go along.
Stowing my gear below decks as we sailed through the intra-coastal waterway, I was photographing the keel as we moved into The Atlantic. From there I was in the rigging, getting into the crow’s nest, keeping my eye to the lens as I was inches away from the unfurling of a 400 square foot main sail 80 feet above the waterline – and pointing the glass at the crew as they went about their seagoing tasks.
The final day at sea, the Captain asked me if I’d like to be able to get some shots of the ship from the vantage point of the ocean. Anticipating the type of photographs I could get – a 16th century barque under full sail – I smiled and nodded.
He had a dinghy brought up along the port side of the ship and with camera gear strapped on I went below decks to wait on my taxi ride. When it pulled up alongside, I grabbed the cannon rope lifted my feet off the planking of the deck and swung out through the gun port. Over the Atlantic with nothing to stop me from a cold four foot drop into the ocean if I missed my target, I landed squarely on top of the dinghy – and the first mate that had been sent along to assist me.
As we pulled away from the side of The Elizabeth II, the majesty of a sailing ship under full sail came into focus. Backing away a distance of about 50 yards we circled the ship several times as I alternated between watching the ship bob in the lens and staring in awe forgetting for a second about the camera.
With the sun setting on the horizon behind us, it was time to return to the ship. Making the transfer from the dinghy to the ship through the same gun port was trickier this time as the seas had started to rise and I had to time my move so that I wouldn’t be thrown into the oaken side of the vessel as it lifted and sank on each passing wave.
Back aboard safely, I grabbed a quick cup of coffee from the mess decks and settled in to process the photos I had just taken. When I finished, I pulled my sleeping bag out from the foot locker, hauled it up top to the main deck and spread it out between the main and mizzen masts. Just one more night to fall asleep looking up at the stars, feeling the rocking motion of the ship and feeling the sea spray sting me in the face.
Jerry Nelson is a nationally recognized photojournalist and adventure photographer. His work has appeared in many national, regional and local publications including CNN, USAToday, Upsurge, Earthwalkers and Associated Content and he is a regular contributor to Huffington Post as well as OpEdNews. Nelson travels the country seeking out the people, places and things that make America unique and great. Nelson currently is in Washington D.C. pointing his camera at OccupyDC and freelancing for The Washington Times the second largest paper in the nation’s capital.
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