Cabin Boy on the Mayflower II
My good friend Art Cobery recently told me the story of his cousin Joe Meany who signed on as cabin boy on a Mayflower replica back in 1957. It’s not a local history story per se, but it’s a good story for the Thanksgiving holiday. And it was featured on the front page of the Crescenta Valley Ledger in March 1957.
Art hails originally from Massachusetts where some of his family still resides. In 1957, his cousin Joe Meany was a high school senior in Waltham, Massachusetts. He was a brilliant kid but his family was not wealthy enough to fund college tuition. Joe was trying to pad his resume, anything to angle for a scholarship. He entered an essay contest put on by the National Boys Club, not really thinking much about the fact that a first-place win also got him a spot as cabin boy on the Mayflower II. Joe won, and decided to accept the adventure, despite having no sailing experience.
The Mayflower II was the brainchild of Warwick Charlton, an English newspaper reporter on the front lines of WWII in North Africa. He was impressed with the bonds England and America formed during the war, and decided to create a tangible symbol of that bond by building a replica of the Pilgrims’ vessel, the Mayflower, recreating the voyage and gifting the ship to the U.S.
The replica ship set sail from England with 33 crewmembers in May 1957. All the crewmen were English save for one American, 17-year-old Joe Meany. The original Mayflower was a big, unwieldy cargo ship, probably unsuited for a trans-Atlantic crossing, and the replica was just the same – top-heavy and rolling in the swells. Poor Joe, having never sailed before, was seasick for the first week-and-a-half. But he then adjusted and took on a wide variety of jobs, pulling lines and climbing the rigging, besides washing the crew’s dishes.
A highlight for Joe came mid-ocean. Joe had left school before graduation for this adventure. The crew, hearing of this, staged a mock graduation ceremony for the boy. A bed sheet was his gown and part of a mop was his graduation tassel. The captain presented him with his diploma, signed by King Neptune.
The ship was becalmed for days and the crew swam in the warm ocean that was as calm as a swimming pool. By contrast they rode out a major storm when the crew simply took in all the sails and “battened down the hatches.” After 57 days the Mayflower II sailed into Plymouth Harbor. Joe was greeted with a huge surprise. During the trip, a Notre Dame alum worked with the famed college to present Joe Meany with a full scholarship. Joe became an electrical engineer, settled down in Waltham and married his high school sweetheart.
A couple of fun facts about the Mayflower II voyage: There was a stowaway! A tiny black-and-white kitten named Felix was smuggled onboard just before the ship left England. It fell to Joe Meany to care for the tiny cat. Felix was fearless and used up three of its nine lives. He was swept overboard and saved; tangled high in the rigging and fell to the deck; and was accidently stepped on in the dark. He went home with Joe and lived happily ever after with the family of Joe’s girlfriend.
Another fun fact: The crew threw four messages in bottles into the ocean, signed by the crew and with a paw-print from Felix. One was retrieved in Norway, another in the Bahamas and the other two – who knows? But in 2012, one of the messages surfaced at a flea market in Florida unidentified by the seller. Someone suspected what it was and contacted Joe to verify it was genuine. They bought it and donated it to the museum in Plymouth.
According to Art, his cousin Joe Meany was a regular visitor to the Mayflower II moored at Plymouth and treated as a guest of honor. But Joe never went to sea again. Joe reportedly said it was a great adventure but he “wouldn’t do it again for a million dollars!”