Issue: September 2007
FROM THE EDITOR: Details, Details

--by T. F. Sayles

Forget radar and chartplotters. Forget autopilots and VHF radios and satellite weather and crushed-ice dispensers. You want to know what technological advance Captain John Smith would have envied most if he'd gotten a glimpse of the 21st century? Comfortable clothes, that's what I'm thinking. Sure, a GPS would've been nice, and who'd say no to a machine that tells you not only how much water is under your shallop, but also where the fish are? But could you really enjoy any of that on a hot summer day if you're wearing a big floppy hat, a long-sleeve shirt and baggy button-up pantaloons? I think not.

It would be reasonable of you at this point to wonder how I could get hung up on such a trivial matter when considering something as historically meaty as Captain John Smith's exploration of the Bay in 1608--or, more specifically, the re-creation of that journey this summer on a replica of Smith's wooden shallop. Well, that's just the way I roll. I've always been most fascinated with the human minutiae of history. What did they eat? What did Jacobean English sound like? How did they cut their toenails? And how could they possibly survive a Chesapeake summer in those awful clothes?

When I first heard about the re-enactment of Smith's voyage, what intrigued me most was that it promised to get at some of those day-to-day details. That was wishful thinking, of course, because when you get right down to it, no matter how hard the reenactors try to put themselves in Smith's shoes, they can't really do it. They can't put lives at risk, for starters, and of course Smith and company flirted with annihilation every step of the way. And the modern-day explorers just know things that Smith's crew couldn't have known. When they see glittering sand on a beach, they can't really believe they might have found gold or silver. When they sail into the mouth of a river, they can't genuinely wonder if it offers a shortcut to China. And, try as they might, they can't honestly worry about where their next meal or drink of water is coming from. So they don't try, Andy Bystrom told me over a beer at McGarvey's when the shallop stopped in Annapolis. They recognized that early on, and they agreed that they would just be alert to whatever insights the journey did impart--and use them to inform their conversations with the people who came to see them at every port.

They also decided early on, Andy said, that they'd wear the period costumes as little as possible--that is, only when their hosts wanted photos or some kind of re-enactment shtick. Not only are the costumes physically uncomfortable, he said, they add an awkward veneer of play-acting to the whole public-interaction thing. So maybe that's one aspect of the 1608 experience that they did come to understand. When Smith and his crew came into contact with the natives, surely they sometimes felt a bit self-conscious in their pantaloons. And come mid-July, a sun-blocking T-shirt and a pair of bug-repellent shorts from L.L. Bean would have looked like a very good idea.