What was that?
Navigating delightedly through Nathaniel Philbrick's new history, "Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War" (Viking, 2006), I was surprised to read about Pollack Rip, meaning the nasty stretch where Nantucket Sound and the Atlantic meet east of Monomoy Point. Mr. Philbrick is the author of In the Heart of the Sea, the National Book Award winning bestseller in 2000, and other books. He lives on Nantucket.
His new book tells the story of the Mayflower Compact, the Pilgrims' beachhead on American soil, the first deadly winter, the establishment of their colony, and the struggles they and the Indians joined as the settlers dug in and confirmed their determination to make new lives in the new world. It's a terrific story, and Mr. Philbrick's view departs from the grammar school understanding of the Pilgrims' history that we have accepted.
But, it's always been Pollock Rip, not Pollack Rip, to me, and today, it's Pollock Rip on the chart and in Eldridge. I thought perhaps the meticulous Mr. Philbrick had slipped up, but no, his notes led me to Sears Nickerson's Land Ho! - 1620, "A Seaman's Story of the Mayflower, Her Construction, Her Navigation, and Her First Landfall." The book was first published in 1931 and, Mr. Philbrick explains, was reissued by the Michigan University Press and edited by Delores Bird Carpenter. Mr. Nickerson's research is the Plymouth Rock on which Mr. Philbrick founds his description of the Mayflower's landfall east of Cape Cod's curling arm.
Mr. Nickerson writes, "The whole answer to the problem of where the Mayflower first saw the land, and where she spent her time afterward, hinges on the position she had reached when she turned about and headed back for Provincetown. As the coast lies today, it is obvious to any seaman that a competent shipmaster bound south by Cape Cod would meet with no serious obstacle until he had passed Chatham and came on to the Shoals of Pollack Rip. If the same was true of 1620, then the Shoals become the Rosetta Stone, as it were, making the language of the fathers intelligible to the navigator of today.
"These Shoals of Pollack Rip are known as 'The Shoals' in the mother tongue, as no other sandbars on the Back Side, from Long Point to Monomoy Point, have ever risen to that eminence in the estimation of any Cape-Codder. Broadly speaking, they comprise that barrier of shifting, scarcely submerged sandbars lying off easterly from Monomoy Point, and almost blocking the entrance to Nantucket Sound. They begin about seven or eight miles southeasterly from Chatham, and, roughly, embrace the group designated on the latest Coast and Geodetic Survey charts as Bearse's Shoal, Broken Part of Pollack Rip, Pollack Rip, Twelve Foot Shoal, Broken Rip, Great Round Shoal, Little Round Shoal, and the Stone Horse."
Indeed, it's quite a mess out there, and the navigational challenges facing the Mayflower's master very likely would have overwhelmed the depleted ship's company, in despair over finding themselves so far north and east of their destination, which was Virginia. But, before calamity struck, and "Just when it seemed they might never extricate themselves from the shoals, the wind began to change, gradually shifting in a clockwise direction to the south. This combined with a fair tide, was all Master Jones needed. By sunset [of Nov. 9, 1620] the Mayflower was well to the northwest of Pollack Rip." She was bound first to what we know as Provincetown, then to Plymouth.
Of course, Mr. Nickerson, the Cape Cod maritime historian of immense reputation, cannot be doubted about his spelling of Pollack Rip. (One wonders when and why the change to the modern form occurred, but I haven't followed this trail to its end yet.) And consequently, neither can Mr. Philbrick, whose book is engaging enough to satisfy any reader. Mr. Philbrick deserves special thanks for pointing the way to Mr. Nickerson's volume, which is a kind of marine exploration, conducted by a knowledgeable and scrupulous guide, and full of detail, much of it beside Mr. Philbrick's point, but intriguing nevertheless.
Happily, Mayflower, the book, does not leave the reader at the First Thanksgiving. Mr. Philbrick carries on to describe the rest of the story: "When we look to how the Pilgrims and their children maintained more than fifty years of peace with the Wampanoags and how that peace suddenly erupted into one of the deadliest wars ever fought on American soil, the history of Plymouth Colony becomes something altogether new, rich, troubling, and complex. Instead of the story we already know, it becomes the story we need to know."
Full of detail, much of it fresh and surprising, Mr. Philbrick's Mayflower is a compelling story, well told and filled with suggestions of historical tributaries yet to be explored, not all of them having merely to do with unfamiliar spelling.