Lifeline to Existence

Nathaniel Philbrick in Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War (Basic Books, 2006) provides the following chronicle of John Howland’s voyage (pp. 32-33).

“In the Fall of 1620, the Mayflower’s ability to steady herself in a gale produced a most deceptive tranquility for a young indentured servant name John Howland. As the Mayflower lay ahull, Howland apparently grew restless below. He saw no reason why he could not venture out of the fetid depths of the ‘tween decks for just a moment.  After more than a month as a passenger ship, the Mayflower was no longer a sweet ship, and Howland wanted some air.  So he climbed a ladder to one of the hatches and stepped onto the desk.

Howland was from the inland town of Fenstanton, Huntingdonshire, and he quickly discovered that the deck of a tempest-tossed ship was no place for a landsman.  Even if the ship had found her own still point, the gale continued to rage with astonishing violence around her.  The shriek of the wind through the rope rigging was terrifying, as was the sight of all those towering, spume-flecked waves.  The Mayflower lurched suddenly to leeward.  Howland staggered to the ship’s rail and tumbled into the sea.

This should have been the end of him.  But dangling over the side and trailing behind the ship was the topsail halyard, the rope used to raise and lower the upper sail.  Howland was in his midtwenties and strong, and when his hand found the halyard, he gripped the rope with such feral desperation that even though he was pulled down more than ten feet below the ocean’s surface, he never let go.  Several sailors took up the halyard and hauled Howland back in, finally snagging him with a boat hook and dragging him back onto to deck.

When William Bradford wrote about this incident more than a decade later, John Howland was not only alive and well, but he and his wife Elizabeth, were on their way to raising ten children, who would, in turn, produce an astounding eighty-eight grandchildren.  A Puritan believed that everything happened for a reason.”

Eleven generations later, I was born in 1947 in Fall River, MA.  If it had not been for that rope trailing the Mayflower, I never would have existed.

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