Ship boat

Replica of the first Maine-built ship to launch in Bath

Virginia was the first ship built in what would become America by settlers in 1607. After more than a decade, volunteers would launch it into the Kennebec River.

BATH, Maine – In Bath, it’s all above and below deck as a crew of dedicated volunteers work to prepare Maine’s first ship for launch Saturday.

The all-volunteer crew of more than 100 skilled men and women have worked for more than 11 years to build a replica of the Virginia, the first ship ever built in the new world by the Popham settlers. But the projects to build Virginia and help preserve Maine’s rich boat building history began nearly 25 years ago.

In 1607, the 120 men and boys who made up the Popham Colony built not only Maine’s first ship, but also America’s on the bank of the Kennebec River near present-day Phippsburg.

Local boatbuilder and shipbuilder Rob Stevens estimated that it would have taken the settlers just a few months to build what his crew of volunteers took over a decade to build.

“They weren’t slowed down by the electricity,” Stevens said with a smile.

The Popham settlers may have worked faster, but they abandoned New England after just 14 months.

In its heyday, the small colony of Maine rivaled Jamestown, but an extremely cold winter, having no women in the colony, and settlers unable or unwilling to establish a connection with the Abenaki people are among the reasons that would have led to the disappearance of the colony. Many details of the colony have been lost to history, as have the Virginia records. She was used to bring settlers back to England, then made several trips to Jamestown before her case went cold.

Four centuries later, volunteers formed a non-profit organization, Maine’s First Ship, wanting to bring Virginia back to life and keep its history and that of Popham Colony alive. Board members and volunteers traveled to London and Jamestown to research and create a design as close to the original Virginia as possible.

At the yard, which sits in the shadow of Bath Iron Works, men and women, many with little boat building experience, have formed a community over the past decade, and many are sad to see the construction of the ship that has become like an old friend coming to an end, but they are excited about its future.

“A lot of people just learn better with hands-on history. If you can engage your body and mind at the same time, I think the lessons sink in a lot better,” explained Jeremy Blaiklock, vice president of the first ship of the Maine.

Virginia will be carefully lifted by cranes into the Kennebec River at 4:30 p.m. on June 4 at the Bath Freight Shed, and the public is invited to attend. There will be music, food and entertainment.

Over the summer and fall, volunteers will continue to work on Virginia, outfitting her with traditional rigging and learning to sail her before she becomes a moving museum and floating classroom, sailing along the coast of Maine, teaching history and sailing lessons to students.