Signs of land. Closing in with the land at nightfall.
It is usually supposed that the Mayflower hit on Cape Cod by accident, but the fact that the Pilgrims felt reasonably sure that the land that they saw at daybreak tomorrow morning was Cape Cod is proof enough that they knew what land it ought to be. They were neither sailors nor navigators, and outside of one or two of them, none of them had ever seen North America before. Two of the ship’s officers had been in that locality previously, but it would take something more definite than that to account for the Pilgrims believing it was Cape Cod until they were close enough to make it out clearly. The logical answer is that when they sighted land Captain Christopher Jones knew that he was close to the 42nd parallel of north latitude, and was heading toward Cape Cod. It was usual for early navigators to strike out for the parallel they wanted to reach, and then keep to that parallel. Jones was not in a hurry to reach Cape Cod in particular, but circumstances beyond his control were getting so out of hand that he must have been quite anxious to get to land somewhere, anywhere, and soon. They had been held back by all kinds of bad weather, and winter was closing in. There was a broken main beam, and the ship was in no condition to handle heavy weather. Fresh water was getting scarce, fresh provisions were getting low, they were out of all firewood. Scurvy was breaking out among crew and passengers, and the stork was due to come on board again for the second time almost any day now. Any decent captain would head for the nearest land he could reach with whatever wind and weather he could manage.
The Mayflower had enjoyed clear northwest winds for a day or two now; with a good noon sight of the sun yesterday and today, Jones’ cross staff would tell him he was on the 42nd parallel of latitude, which he undoubtedly knew would lead him in to Cape Cod if he followed it. He would probably not have known his longitudinal position, having no way to check up on it since leaving England. But he could be sure of his latitude.
He must have known by the change in the colour of the sea water and by the general appearance of the western clouds that land was not far off, and it is more than likely that he had caught the earthy smell of the land in an offshore breeze. Bradford states distinctly that the weather was clear and crisp, and that there was a northwesterly breeze off the land, when daylight broke on Thursday. The sun rose on the back side of Cape Cod tomorrow morning at 6:55 AM. The moon, which was nine days after full, was a waning crescent in mid-sky, too thin to help. Daybreak, when the Pilgrims say they “espied” the land, was twenty or thirty minutes before sunrise; they thus caught their first glance of Cape Cod over the bow of the Mayflower at about half past six in the morning tomorrow.