Mayflower Voyage: Life on Board

By the time The Mayflower set sail for the New World, provisions were low, after losing much time and resources on the repairs for The Speedwell.

The passengers were already weary, having been on board throughout the delays.

The Mayflower sailed from Plymouth on September 6, 1620, in what Bradford called “a prosperous wind.” The first half of the voyage was fairly smooth, but that would not last.

Tradition states that Plymouth was the last stop for The Mayflower. But a plaque in Newlyn, Cornwall, England states that the vessel stopped for fresh water after the water in Plymouth spread throughout the city with fever and cholera.

In addition to 102 people on board, the Mayflower also carried live animals, such as dogs, sheep, goats and poultry. Two dogs, a spaniel and English mastiff {which is a very large dog} are known to have been on board.

The Mayflower was a cargo ship and not meant to transport people. Everyone was crowded in below deck. One of the reasons The Mayflower was chosen was because it was a large and sturdy vessel that could carry all the supplies necessary for such a long voyage.

The passengers lived between the decks and hung curtains or sheets for privacy. Passengers slept wherever possible, including on wooden pallets attached to the walls, using a cloth to create hammocks, and even sleeping on the floor.

She is known to have carried twelve pieces of artillery, as the Pilgrims feared they would have to defend themselves.

A long boat and a shallop, which was a 21-foot boat powered by oars or sails, were also transported on the Mayflower.

The passage was a miserable one for those on board. Huge waves constantly crashed against the ship’s topside deck. Storms are said to have raged for days at a time. All of this caused stress and led to “a key structural support timber” being fractured.

The structure was repaired with a jackscrew, which was originally planned to be used in the construction of the settler homes.

Many of those on board suffered from sea sickness. There was little privacy for those on board. When an individual needed to use the bathroom, the would go in a slop bucket, which could not be thrown overboard when the storms were too bad. Imagine how terrible the smell was with everyone cramped so close together. The passengers could not bathe while on board.

The common belief at the time was that too much fresh air was bad for you.

The passengers would eat dried meat and fish, grains and flour, make hardtack and boil cabbage, dried fruit, and cheese. They drank beer.

We also know that tools and household items were on board for setting up a settlement. William Mullins, a shoemaker on board, is said to have carried a large stock of boots and shoes. Decks were stacked floor to ceiling with tables, bed, rugs, chairs, chests of clothes and linens, pillows, seeds for planting, tools, dishes, food and keepsakes.

The days were long and tedious, especially for those that were sick. The days were spent below deck, playing simple games, telling stories and riddles, reading, sleeping and maybe even singing songs. Lanterns, fueled by oil and candles, would have been used for light.

Often it may have been difficult to tell if it was day or night below decks. People often slept when they could. Imagine the jostling of the ship, along with all of the noise of the ship creaking, the mast moving, and the waves hitting the side of the ship.

William Burton, a servant of Samuel Fuller, is the only passenger to die during the voyage. He would have been buried at sea.

Elizabeth Hopkins, wife of Stephen Hopkins, gave birth to a son, Oceanus Hopkins during the voyage. {Note: Oceanus died when he was six years old.}

John Howland was knocked overboard by a turbulent storm and was only saved when he “managed to grab a topsail halyard that was trailing in the water and was hauled back aboard safely.”

The sailors are said to swear and treat the passengers badly, especially the Saints, who raised up prayer after prayer.

The voyage became a strain on all of those on board. We can only imagine how tensions may have increased the longer they were at sea.