The Block Island Times

Writer's Block: The fate of John Howland

By J. V. Houlihan, Jr. | Jan 24, 2013

Island resident Peter Greenman, along with several other island folks including Champ and Carder Starr and myself, share ancestry with John Howland. Howland was an indentured servant who sailed aboard the Mayflower.

Recently, Peter and Sandy Greenman had an interesting conversation regarding our ancestor, whom Gov. William Bradford referred to as “a lusty younge man.” Peter told me he was re-reading Nat Philbrick’s book “Mayflower,” and we both agreed that the story of her crossing of the Atlantic was nothing short of an astounding feat.

John Howland made a bad decision to get some air one day in the middle of the ocean. According to Nat Philbrick, “As the Mayflower lay ahull, Howland apparently grew restless down 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.” (I’ve read many accounts of this voyage, and I can’t blame the guy for his decision.) So, up onto the deck of the ship he went.

Although it was blowing a gale of wind, the ship was somewhat stable. To lay ahull is when you reduce the sail area of a vessel and lash the helm to leeward. The master of the Mayflower did just that. Howland’s thinking was, I’m certain, that it was a prudent decision to go up on deck at that time. As fate would have it, as he got up on deck, the ship lurched to leeward, and sent Howland tumbling over the rail and into the ocean. Fate would also have it, that a topsail halyard was hanging over the side of the ship and trailing behind her. According to Philbrick, “Howland in his midtwenties and strong, and 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.” Fate was indeed kind that day for the “lusty younge man.” Howland was hauled back up onto theMayflower.

Peter and Sandy Greenman raced in the Sunfish (sailboat) class out of Hingham, on the South Shore of Boston. Their son Christopher has done 10 Newport-to-Bermuda races, sailed aboard the 12-meter Courageous, and is currently racing in the 6 meter class.

I took my first Sunfish sail from a boat I rented from Payne’s (Howland descendants) Dock in ’69. I helped, along with Carder Starr and his brother Champ, rig a wood burning stove aboard his sailboat Spray, which was a replica of Joshua Slocum’s boat.

Nat Philbrick’s book “Second Wind” deals with the author’s mid-life desire to reclaim his National Sunfish Champion status.

All of these observations seemed to be connected. After Thanksgiving, as Peter and I discussed John Howland before boarding the Carol Jean, Sandy Greenman made a simple yet profound observation: “As I hear you two talk, I can only think that if John Howland had not grabbed that halyard, you guys would not be here.”

By the way, Peter Greenman is a genealogist, driven to let us know from where we came. He is the author of “The Descendants of Nathaniel Mott of Block Island,” and is currently working on a book about the Mitchells of Block Island. I was driven to work on the docks and load ferryboats. Go figure this stuff.

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