415 Years Later, Maine’s First Ship Sets Sail

After a long journey, a replica of the Virginia of Sagadahoc, the first ship built on Maine shores, sets sail in Bath.

The exposed frame of the Virginia of Sagadahoc replica, photographed during construction, in 2015.
The exposed frame of the replica, photographed during construction, in 2015. Photograph by Paul Cunningham
By Jaed Coffin
From our June 2022 issue

Rob Stevens, a 66-year-old master shipwright who looks like a salty Santa in torn Carhartt overalls, stood in a hoop house in Bath this spring, on the bank of the Kennebec River, admiring the 55-foot hull of what’s being called Maine’s First Ship. He’s overseeing construction of the replica of the Virginia of Sagadahoc, which was built in 1607 some 10 miles downriver, at a small English settlement known as the Popham Colony. A contemporary of Jamestown and a precursor to the Pilgrims, the Popham Colony didn’t last long — a hundred men landed in August, made it through one winter, and sailed back to London the next fall aboard two ships they’d arrived on, plus the Virginia.

“Back then,” Stevens says, “the rule of thumb was that 10 men could build a ton of boat a day.” As a “30 ton” vessel — a metric indicating not weight but cargo capacity — the original Virginia would have taken 30ish days to complete. The replica has taken a smidge longer: its keel was laid 11 years ago, and planning began way back in 1999. The historical record provided little to go on, just a brief mention of the ship’s tonnage and a thumbnail sketch. Dozens of naval architects, maritime historians, and shipbuilders weighed in on what the Virginia would have looked like, although it remains something of a reverse-engineered approximation (and it’s slightly larger than the original, to accommodate school field trips once it’s afloat).

Stevens surveyed the workshop, which was milling with 20 or so volunteers, many of whom were new to boatbuilding when they first got involved. Over the course of the project, 130 have labored on the ship. The majority are retirees, and they come from all walks of life. That morning, a classically trained violinist worked alongside a medical-school professor and a software engineer. Others included a chef, an EMT, and a master carpenter. “We’re taking our time,” Stevens said.

It took the Popham colonists six weeks to sail the Virginia to London. The following year, the vessel crossed the Atlantic again, to resupply Jamestown. The only subsequent documentation of its use was a single fishing expedition in Chesapeake Bay. “This is an almost completely forgotten piece of history,” Maine’s First Ship executive director Kirstie Truluck says. “Everyone remembers Jamestown, but here’s this whole other colony in Maine.”

The replica of the ship that short-lived colony produced is, in some ways, no less a parable of failure and perseverance. The whole project was nearly abandoned out of frustration in 2008. After that, the group adopted a “figure out the details as we go” approach, Stevens said. For a decade, work progressed in fits and starts, and the pandemic slowed it down too, but pending certification from the Coast Guard, the Virginia is finally set to launch on June 4, into the same waters its forerunner sailed more than 400 years ago.

Photographed by Jim Nelson

The Virginia, Stevens points out, certainly wasn’t the first feat of boatbuilding in what’s now Maine — the Wabanaki built agile canoes; Champlain constructed small boats on the St. Croix River a few years before the Popham colonists landed — and he’s less than effusive about the colonists’ legacy. “They were all a bunch of quitters!” he laughed. “They all went home! They said, ‘There’s mosquitoes here, I don’t want to be here!’” The same can’t be said of the volunteers who devoted almost a quarter century to recreate what was once built in a month. Definitely not quitters.

An educational center on the Bath waterfront provides a history of the Popham Colony and the Virginia and gives visitors a chance to engage with riggers, historians, and others involved with the project. 27 Commercial St., Bath. 207-443-4242.


Down East Magazine, June 2022