Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Rediscovering Henry Hudson's Half Moon


In the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian we can marvel at the tiny spacecraft in which astronauts rocketed into space a scant 47 years ago. Sailing the Hudson and neighboring waters today is the 17th-century equivalent of a modern space capsule: a full-size replica of Henry Hudson's most famous ship, the Halve Maen (Half Moon).

Four centuries ago, a small band of Argonauts set forth in the original of this vessel to search for a passage to the fabulously rich Indies. Compared to the amenities of modern-day astronauts, conditions aboard such ships were abominable. Space was cramped and offered no privacy. Watches were long, and the manual labor was heavy, always in perpetually wet clothes infested with lice. Once out of port, sailors endured a diet of cold salted meat and fish, no vegetables or fruit, and moldy biscuits or hardtack, enlivened by stale beer. Typhus, scurvy and dysentery were common afflictions. A sailor's life was short and brutish.

A Golden Age
This was the golden age of exploration, an era of ship captains for hire. Columbus, an Italian, sailed for the Spanish crown; John Cabot, originally Giovanni Caboto, by birth a Genoese and by adoption a Venetian, sailed for the English; Giovanni da Verrazzano, a Florentine navigator, sailed for French King Francis I; Esteban Gomez was a Portuguese pilot in the service of Spain. In 1524, Verrazzano discovered what is now New York Harbor, where a great bridge would be named for him--but he did not sail into the river.

It is not these early explorations that concern us here; rather, it is the replica of the Half Moon now plying these waters during the celebration of the 400th anniversary of Hudson’s discovery of the river that bears his name. First, some statistics: the length of her hull is 84.5 feet; her length on deck is only 65 feet. Her beam is 17.3 feet, and the depth of her hold is a mere eight feet.

The Half Moon’s Specifications
The ship assigned to Hudson by the Dutch East India Company was small by 17th-century standards. Built in a Dutch shipyard of German and Danish lumber with a high forecastle and sterncastle, she resembled the so-called Vlie boats the Dutch used on the Zuider Zee. England and the Netherlands were then fierce commercial rivals. The Dutch had a fleet of 1,680 ships, vastly outnumbering the 350 available to the English.

Being lighter and narrower, with their frames spaced much wider apart and using lighter planking topside, Dutch ships were faster than their English competitors, which had tightly spaced frames. Unlike English shipbuilders, the Dutch built their oceangoing vessels with flat bottoms to negotiate the shallow entrance to the Zuider Zee.

Because the original Half Moon was built using a simple geometric method called the tangent arc system, no comprehensive plans have survived. Even in the 17th century, industrial espionage was common; this may also explain why no plans have ever been found.

Although the Half Moon has a large amount of sheer (the upward curve of the longitudinal lines of the hull), the decks remain surprisingly level. Today, boats are built with decks following the sweep of the sheer. A horizontal deck offered many advantages: on warships with gunports in a line, cannons on wheeled carriages could easily be served and moved. Level decks also could be flooded when needed, lowering the risk of fire and explosion.

The rig and sail plan of the Half Moon are typical of square-rigged ships of the period: a square foresail and topsail on the foremast and foretopmast; a square mainsail and topsail on the mainmast and main topmast; a triangular lateen sail hung on a long yard attached at an angle to the top of the mizzenmast. A square spritsail hanging from the bowsprit. In all, the sail area measured about 2,800 square feet.

Today’s gaily decorated Half Moon is a faithful replica of the ship in which English sea captain Henry Hudson and a mixed crew of sixteen English and Dutch seamen set sail and departed from Amsterdam on March 25, 1609.

Hudson’s Mission
In his pocket was a copy of a contract with the Dutch East India Company in which he agreed to search for a northeast route to the Indies through the forbidding Arctic Ocean. Hudson had already made such a search unsuccessfully in the service of the English Company of Adventurers, also known as the Muscovy Company. This may explain why his cabin also held charts and papers relating to the undiscovered Northwest Passage.

Regrettably, we know the names of only two of the crew who accompanied him on this voyage of discovery, and these almost by accident: Robert Juet and Samuel Colman, two English seamen. Hudson's log books have long since disappeared, so the only complete record is the journal kept by Juet, a mate on the Half Moon. Colman would later be mortally wounded by a native arrow and buried on a sandy spit, named by Hudson Colman's Point. We know it today as Sandy Hook.

True to the terms of his contract, Hudson headed north and then east, but severe weather soon caused unrest among his crew. Instead of returning to Amsterdam, Hudson navigated his little vessel west across the Atlantic to search for the elusive Northwest Passage.

Hudson reached the mouth of our river on September 3, 1609, after first scouring the coastline from Nova Scotia to Cape Hatteras for the elusive Northwest Passage. He spent 32 days exploring the river that would later bear his name, and began his homeward voyage on October 4, 1609. To satisfy the English members of his crew, he put in at the port of Dartmouth in England on November 7, 1609. English authorities seized his vessel and forbade him to leave the country or to do any further exploration for the Dutch.

The Half Moon and Hudson's logbooks were returned to the Dutch in 1610. She sailed for India the following year, and her fate is unknown. She may have been destroyed by English privateers in 1618.

Not the First Replica
Interestingly, today’s Half Moon is not the first replica. In 1909, the Dutch constructed a copy of the ship for the Hudson-Fulton Celebration to be held in New York Harbor. The event was planned to honor both Henry Hudson and American inventor Robert Fulton, the first to propel a boat using steam power. In 1807, Fulton's Clermont made the 140-mile trip between New York and Albany in the remarkable time of 32 hours.

When the Dutch tried to replicate the Half Moon, however, they discovered that no plans were available. This led them to construct a copy that was similar to the original, but was smaller and erred in some details. It turned out to be an ill-fated ship.

Instead of sailing across the Atlantic as Hudson had done, the second Half Moon arrived ignominiously in New York as deck cargo aboard a Holland-America Line freighter Soestdijk. During the celebration, she collided with the replica of Fulton's Clermont and part of her bowsprit was torn off. Enterprising crewmen took advantage of this accident and carved pieces of the broken bowsprit into miniature souvenir models of the Half Moon.At the conclusion of the Hudson-Fulton Celebration, the Half Moon was towed to Palisades Interstate Park and moored in Popolopen Creek as a tourist attraction. It was an appropriate berth: Hudson himself had anchored here in 1609.

In the spring of 1924, she was moved upriver again, this time to Cohoes, seven miles north of Albany. By coincidence, this marked the point on the river at which Hudson had abandoned his search for the Northwest Passage.

Hauled out of the water by Cohoes city fathers, the little ship was moved to what was to become her final resting place in East Side Park. With few visitors, the forlorn, poorly maintained hulk eventually became a shelter for vagrants and partying teenagers. Fires were a frequent problem, and on July 22, 1934, the second Half Moon was destroyed in a conflagration.

Today’s Half Moon
Fast forward now some fifty-four years to 1988, when plans were being made for a New Netherland Festival to commemorate Dutch contributions to America. The organizer of this event was Dr. Andrew A. Hendricks, a physician of Dutch descent, from Lumberton, N.C.
Dr. Hendricks consulted Dutch and American shipbuilders and decided to hire Nicholas S. Benton, of Newport, R.I., to design and build a third Half Moon. Naval historian Donald S. Johnson, of Perry, Maine, served as a consultant.

Benton, a master ship rigger and shipwright, was president of the Rigging Gang of Middleton, R.I., which specialized in ship restoration. Benton visited maritime museums in the Netherlands and the U.S. to study ship design of the period.

With additional research available that had not been known in the building of the 1909 replica and dissatisfied with that vessel's design, Benton decided to go back to square one and use the original tangent arc method. Once plans were completed, various contractors were hired to furnish materials. Oak was chosen for the keel, frames, lower planking and wales; upper planking, ceilings and decks were to be of pine and fir.

Mitchell S. FitzGibbon, of Westfield, N.Y., forged the ironwork. Ernie Cowan Enterprises, of Mayville, N.Y., cut and milled the wood. Certain concessions were made to innovative new technology to extend the life of the ship and cut costs. Instead of using large individual timbers, oak planks were laminated and bonded with waterproof epoxy resin. The result was not only an infinitely stronger hull, but also one less likely to be affected by dry rot.

On the original Half Moon, the sails had been made of flax. For the 1989 replica, Dave Bierig Sailmakers, of Erie, Penn., fashioned the sails from Duradon. Manufactured in Scotland, this synthetic fabric looks and handles like canvas but is softer and easier to furl. The rigging--woven from hemp on the original--is now a composite of polyester around stainless steel wire to reduce stretch, and treated with a net dip.

The keel for the third Half Moon was laid on July 23, 1988, in Albany, N.Y. She was launched on the Hudson River on June 10, 1989. Completion and fitting out of the ship was set back by Benton’s untimely death at age 35 on June 19, 1989, when the mast of a schooner he was dismantling snapped and he fell 75 feet. Benton had carried many of the plans for the ship and its rigging in his head.

For the past twenty years, the Half Moon has sailed the Hudson and neighboring East Coast waters and rivers as a traveling museum offering educational programs about the history of the Dutch colony of New Netherland. The ship itself is a living history exhibit. Cabins and decks furnished authentically with sea chests, weapons, tools, navigational instruments, and trade goods that take visitors back to an age when intrepid European explorers opened new routes to trade with the East. For the first three weeks of August, the Half Moon is scheduled to remain at Peckham Materials in Athens, N.Y., for standard maintenance before resuming Hudson River cruising under Capt. William T. "Chip" Reynolds. In November, the ship will sail to its winter berth at Verplanck, N.Y.

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