Sail of the Century

Henry Hudson’s historic voyage is recreated aboard the replica ship Half Moon


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For Henry Hudson, finding a shortcut meant taking the long way.

The English explorer’s search for a quickie route to the Orient took him on a zigzagging quest thousands of miles long. Hudson made four journeys between 1607 to 1610, but it was his third voyage, for the Dutch East India Company on the Half Moon in 1609, that is the most famous. It resulted in the discovery of the river named for him. And, not coincidentally, it has been four hundred years since this historic journey, which transformed the known limits of the New World and eventually lead to the Dutch settlement known as New Netherland.

In the early 17th century, popular belief had it that in summer, you could sail straight over the North Pole and down the other side because the ice would melt. On his first two journeys — when he was sailing for the Muscovy Company, an English trading company — Hudson ruled out that theory: solid pack ice prevented any conceivable passage. Afterward, the Muscovy Company cut off his funding, which is why he sought out a gig with the Dutch.

Much of what we know about Hudson is speculation; English family records were most likely lost in the London fire of 1666. “To me, Hudson was a working-class guy, a captain looking for a job,” says Corey Sandler, author of Henry Hudson: Dreams and Obsession. “We can’t say he was educated, but he was certainly knowledgeable enough to navigate a ship. Captains don’t spring forth fully born. Some people believe he sailed on a number of military expeditions.”

He must have had a pretty good reputation: When the Dutch sent him to find a passage to the East, they equipped him with the most advanced technology of the day. The Half Moon was built specifically for discovery and equipped with state-of-the-art navigational instruments. Hudson set out with his crew of about 20 and went northeast, as his contract specified, but when he hit pack ice off the Russian coast, he swung back across the Atlantic instead of returning to Amsterdam — which wasn’t part of the original deal. Historians have implied that Hudson was breaking his contract to look for a northwest passage instead of one to the northeast. Most likely a representative, or supercargo, of the East India Company would have been on the ship to okay the decision.

Whatever actually prompted the turnaround to the New World — Hudson eventually landed around Maine, swung as far south as Chesapeake Bay, then headed back north — we do have excellent records of the Half Moon’s journey up the Hudson, thanks to the detailed journal of first mate Robert Juet.


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