“I’ve got to go topside to fill my lungs with some fresh air,” thought agitated John Howland to himself as he began to climb the ship’s ladder up to the main deck. Water sloshed around his ankles and storm tossed waves splashed down on him from the hatch above. The Mayflower rocked back and forth and pitched side to side bobbing like a cork in the storm. The fierce October tempest would eventually throw the ship far off course from its intended destination in the Virginia colony.
The other passengers shouted at John over the loud creaking of the Mayflower’s wooden frame as the ship rocked with every passing wave. “Don’t go up there, John! We’ve been ordered to stay below until this terrible storm has passed!” The ship’s hold was filled with passengers as well as the stench that permeated everything in their close quarters.
“This storm has been raging for weeks! I’m going to take a look,” his shouts drowned out by the roar of the waves crashing above. “Don’t worry!”
John and most of the other passengers were en route from England to America to start a new life where they would not be persecuted for practicing Christianity the way they believed they should. England and all of Europe had been going through tumultuous times since the beginning of the Reformation. Catholic or Protestant? The decision for England to embrace one or the other swayed back and forth almost as much as the Mayflower did during this storm. Even when England was Protestant, as it was at the time of the Pilgrims in 1620, it was not Protestant enough for this group of Christians.
As John climbed the ladder and opened the hatch, water poured down on him and drenched every stitch of clothing on his body. The wind and spray of the sea swirled around him as he came on deck. The rocking of the ship caused him to stumble, slip, and slide. He quickly grabbed a sail that had been furled because of the storm.
A crew member barked out an order for him to get below deck, but just as John turned around to look at him a monstrous wave crashed onto the deck. The force of the water swept John overboard out into the watery depths. As he slipped under the water he felt something next to him. He latched on to it as his head came above the surface and then dunked back underneath. He had grabbed hold of the ship’s halyard! He was hanging on for dear life! The crewmen quickly grabbed the rope and pulled him back into the boat. Wet, water-logged, and shaken, John Howland went back below deck, but he was thankful that he had been miraculously rescued!
William Bradford, in the only primary source account of the Mayflower voyage, writes of the experience:
“In sundry of these storms the winds were so fierce, and the seas so high, as they could not bear a knot of sail, but were forced to hull, for divers days together. And in one of them, as they thus lay at hull, in a mighty storm, a lusty young man (called John Howland) coming upon some occasion above the gratings, was, with a seele of the ship thrown into the sea; but it pleased God that he caught hold of the topsail halyards, which hung overboard, and ran out at length; yet he held his hold (though he was sundry fathoms under water) till he was hauled up by the same rope to the brim of the water, and then with a boat hook and other means got into the ship again, and his life saved; and though he was something ill with it, yet he lived many years after, and became a profitable member both in church and commonwealth.”
This Thanksgiving I have one more reason to be thankful — thankful that John Howland caught hold of that topsail halyard! John Howland is my 10th great-grandfather, a Plymouth Pilgrim, and a signer of the Mayflower Compact. (www.pilgrimhall.org/compact.htm)