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Traveling MA: Sailors, Tattoos, and The Mayflower II

This is one in a series about touring Massachusetts and Newport, Rhode Island. My husband and I spent three weeks there in October, 2021. This Travelogue is a journal of our trip, done for my own sake and to show readers why you should visit Massachusetts.

Of Sailors, Tattoos, and Drowning

For me, the best part of visiting the Mayflower II, was talking with a mariner who worked on board. He patiently answered my landlubber questions, then when he saw me emerge from the cargo hold, he pointed out a large school of small fish swimming right off the deck. I asked him what kind they were, and he answered, “If I knew that, I’d be a marine biologist!” That made me laugh and we got to talking about sailors’ superstitions. This is what he told me about sailors, tattoos, and drowning:

Old-time sailors knew that if they ended up in the water, it likely meant a death sentence. So most of them purposely didn’t learn to swim—rather than be eaten by sharks, or die of exposure, they wanted a quick death. Many sailors tattoo’d pigs, chickens, and roosters on their arms because these animals hate water. Some would tattoo a line of ants across their chest or belly because ants float. Being superstitious, the sailors hoped tattoos like these would protect them from drowning. My mariner friend also told me that before WWII, you’d never see a sailor with the classic anchor tattoo’d on his arm. Anchors go to the bottom of the sea and no sailor wanted that!

Image courtesy of

Why Is This Ship Called The Mayflower II?

Some of the most common questions visitors ask once they are on board the Mayflower II are: “Why is it called the Mayflower II?” and, “Where is the original Mayflower?”

No one knows what happened to the original Mayflower except that there was a record of the ship, assessing its value, in 1624. The Mayflower was a merchant ship, so after delivering the Pilgrims to Massachusetts in 1620, it returned to England and went back to work. The Mayflower II is an almost exact replica of the original ship. It has a wonderful story, here it is in a nutshell:

The Mayflower II was built in Devon, England in 1955 and sailed from Plymouth, England to Plymouth Massachusetts in 1957. A British journalist and publisher, Warwick Charlton, had the idea to build a replica of the Mayflower and gift it to the United States as a thank you for our vital assistance in World War II. This was a completely private gift, no government involvement. It took Charlton ten years to raise enough private funds and cut through the naysayers, but he did it. There is a good article about that here.

Is the Mayflower II An Exact Replica?

The Mayflower II is a nearly exact replica of the original ship. Exceptions to the design are features like a modern staircase between decks, a raised ceiling on the gun deck (‘tween deck), electric lights, and a radio.Traditional tools and old blueprints were used to build the ship from naval architect William A. Baker’s design. If you want to learn more, the lead builder, Stuart A. Upham, wrote a short book about the process of building the ship, called The Illustrated Story Of How Mayflower II Was Built.

Is It Worth Visiting The Mayflower II?

My husband and I really enjoyed touring the Mayflower II. The mariners/docents really knew their stuff and willingly answered all questions. Also, Informative signs such as these, made us think about the challenges of life aboard ship:

Many of us were struck with just how small the Mayflower was, considering that 102 passengers had to live below on the gun deck, also known as the ‘tween deck.  On the original Mayflower, the ceiling was only 5.5 feet high, and the living space was only 58 by 24 feet. This is because the ship was designed to hold cargo, not passengers.

And this may seem like a minor thing, but the bright colors of the ship also surprised me. I imagined the Mayflower to have varying shades of brown, not a light tan set with stripes of yellow, green, red, and blue! But the colors are authentic, I was told, researched from original paintings of the Mayflower.

Notice the beautiful paint job
Items similar to what the English passengers would have used.
The Gun Deck where 102 passengers had to live. Imagine the ceiling a foot lower, little light, and flimsy walls constructed by passengers to give them some privacy.
Some supplies for ship and crew

When Can You Visit The Mayflower II?

Currently, the Mayflower II is en route to Mystic Seaport for routine maintenance. It is being towed by a tugboat. The Mayflower II will return in April 2022, and be open for visitors.

The Mayflower II is part of the Plimoth Patuxet Museums, which also include the Plimoth Plantation—a replication of the original Wampanoag indigenous peoples living area and the English/Pilgrim settlement  (blog to come). The museums are closed for the season (brrrr . . too cold!) but will reopen in April 2022. However, their gift shop at the Visitor Center is open until December 24. Visit the Plimoth Patuxet website for more information.

Why is it Called Plimoth-Patuxet?

The museum wanted to use the original English-settlement spelling of Plimoth to distinguish their sites from the town of Plymouth, and they wanted to include the Wampanoag indigenous peoples’ name for their land: Patuxet, which means Land of Little Streams.

If you missed out on my last blog about the John and Abigail Adams Family Home, see it here.  Want to start at the beginning of the Traveling Massachusetts series? Start here.




  1. Jeannine Thompson Jeannine Thompson

    Thank you, Karen, for your well-written entry about the Mayflower II. As a 4th generation, life-long resident of Plymouth, your article took me back to my childhood school field trips and the smell of wet hemp ropes. You took a lovely picture of the ship’s bell. I believe that the year was 2019 when veterans contributed their military service medals for the casting of that beautiful bell. I have never seen it in person. Maybe it’s time to take grownup me on a field trip. Thanks again!

    • KarenGough KarenGough

      Thank you Jeannine for telling us about the veterans who contributed their medals to the bell. What a beautiful act. And you are 4th generation! Wow! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      • Anonymous Anonymous

        My pleasure!!!

    • Anonymous Anonymous

      Wow I never knew about sailors preference with tattoos (pigs, chickens, roosters!) and superstition and fear of water… so interesting. I also never knew about the bright colors of the original Mayflower. Thank you so much for your blog… we really enjoy it. It may inspire us to take a long trip to New England. And we have it all mapped out by you. Thank you.

      • KarenGough KarenGough

        Thank you Tish! I’m so happy to hear that my blogs might be helpful.

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