Good luck, Godspeed

With two tractor-trailers working in tandem to winch the Godspeed down Rockport's public boat launch, the ship rolled slowly past a sign that suddenly seemed out of place next to the 88-foot ship.

The hand-painted sign - with a small metal box just below - asked for a launching fee: $1 for town residents, $2 for visitors.

But it turned out that the sign was perfectly suited to the informal and jovial crowd of more than 1,000 who came to see the launch of the Godspeed, the latest replica of one of three ships that carried English settlers to Jamestown. It's set to become a signature piece of the Jamestown 2007 events.

As Taylor Allen - owner of Rockport Marine, the yard that built the ship - took to a platform to begin the launch ceremony, he got a few words into his speech before an onlooker interrupted.

"Did you pay the launching fee?" a man yelled, to laughter from the crowd. When Allen said he would, he was cut short again. "Are you a resident?" another man shouted.

When the laughter died, they left Allen to continue.

He stood on a platform surrounded by crowds - on both sides of the ramp, on both sides of the harbor, on top of a bridge that crosses the harbor and perched on several hills surrounding the water.

Only about 3,000 people live in Rockport, but spectators drove in from all around this region - which is steeped in sailing, shipbuilding and woodworking - to catch a glimpse of the curious ship. Many spoke casually about the finest details of the vessel in sailing language that sounded foreign to the untrained ear.

There might have been another reason for such a large turnout. Bright sunshine melted the sheet of ice that covered the harbor in the morning and warmed the crisp Maine air up to the high 20s and low 30s - and the Mainers came out.

"Everyone's ready for a good social after being inside all winter," said Tina Alley, who drove into town from South Bristol, Maine. Her husband, Sam Jones, is a boatbuilder and worked as co-foreman on the Susan Constant that now stays at Jamestown Settlement. "But," she said, "we do love our ships."

Suzanne England is the 20-year-old daughter of master boatbuilder John England, who worked as project manager on the ship. She christened Godspeed, reciting a blessing she wrote herself. "May this vessel bring fair winds and good fortune to all who sail on her. I christen thee 'Godspeed,' " England said before shattering a bottle of champagne across the bow, marking more than 15 months since the ship's keel was laid Dec. 1, 2004.

The ship will stay in Rockport for several weeks, while the crew completes finishing touches and takes it out for sea trials.

In early May, the ship will take its first long voyage, as a crew will sail her from Rockport to Jamestown. Then in late May, a crew of 12 - staff and volunteers of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation - will embark on an 80-day tour up the East Coast, making long stops at six ports to build interest and publicity for the Jamestown 2007 anniversary.

This December will mark 400 years since the original Godspeed, captained by Bartholomew Gosnold and sailing alongside the Susan Constant and the Discovery, set sail from England for Virginia.

Its roughly 52 passengers and crew sought that elusive passage to Asia and to establish a colony to reap America's riches.

They ended up pioneering the first successful and permanent English colony in America, changing the course of history and making the Godspeed - according to Eric Speth, maritime program manager for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation - one of the most historically significant ships ever to sail the ocean.

The small crew of the latest Godspeed had lesser ambitions Saturday.

As Allen, the shipyard owner, said before the christening, "Let's hope she floats like she's supposed to."

It did, to the loud cheers of an appreciative audience.