Part 1. TRAINING DAY, APRIL 26, 2014

Began writing journal at 7 am

I wanted to know what kind of people are able to sail a 19th century whale ship, and I found out last night at the Mystic home of my Melville Society colleague Mary K Bercaw Edwards. Wyn Kelley and I drove down after an afternoon at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, three different wrecks on I 95/93 slowing us to stop-and-go driving along the way. We met Mary K, Nathan Adams, and Peter McCracken at the Mystic Seaport Visitor’s Center and walked right over to the training ship Joseph Conrad so Wyn and I could try our hand at climbing part of the rigging before going to Mary K’s for dinner. I had never done this.

Joseph Conrad

The Joseph Conrad at Mystic Seaport Museum

Fortunately, Nathan went first. He climbed up the rigging to the first platform, which he reached by pulling himself up and over its outer edge before then sliding out along the spar. It was very helpful to see how he did it, but still hard to imagine how it would feel or how much I could do. Mary K went up next, so she could be handy if we got up that high. Peter had worked here at Mystic for one summer in the early 1990s, so he went last, waiting for Wyn and me to try it out. Wyn went up a few rungs and decided to leave it at that. I climbed up just below that platform but could not really imagine pulling myself up around its edge, though I would have loved to do it & be able to stand confidently on that flat protractor shape. As I was coming up slowly step after step, they told me it would be easier if I put my left foot one rung over, and that helped. They also suggested that I stick my butt out more, but I couldn’t feel how to do this. I felt relatively secure with each step, but for some reason my left leg was harder to lift for its next rung than the right. (I’ll have to ask my chiropractor about this. I would not have been trying this if I’d been having any of the back pain that had sent me several times to the chiropractor during our frigid weather back in January.)

I am glad I climbed. The view of the harbor from as high as I got was great. I was high enough to get a new feel for Ishmael’s discovery on the mast-head that if you “move your foot or hand an inch, ship your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air in the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!” (Moby-Dick, “The Mast-Head,” chapter 35). Nathan, of course, had that feeling much more purely, still straddling the spar far out and above me. But he was accustomed to this and fearless. He slid back down on a wire like a monkey on a vine.

Sean Bercaw scanning the horizon

Sean Bercaw scanning the horizon

We came right home for dinner at Mary K’s from the ship. Mary K’s husband Craig made the dinner and sang shanties to us after dinner. Mary K’s brother Sean, who will be second mate on the Morgan’s entire cruise, gave me the ideal introduction to the crew members who can actually run a nineteenth-century whale ship. I asked if it had been competitive for him, as well as for us landlubbers, to win a spot on the Morgan. Yes, indeed, he’d had to apply. In fact, he had applied to be captain, his customary role on a ship, but was happy even to be second mate on this historic voyage. 

I had noted in the application material that there might be one or two tug boats available for assistance, so I asked what their role would be. Would it primarily be to get us out of the berth to begin each leg of the voyage, for example? No, their role is to be much more extensive. Given the prevailing winds and the various currents the ship will encounter, the tugs will much more active than I had imagined. On my leg from Martha’s Vineyard to New Bedford, for example, we are likely to be in the teeth of any wind the whole length of the island, so we will probably be towed by the tugs all the way past the island before setting the sails for the more favorable winds that will breeze us into New Bedford. Similar considerations will govern the other legs of the voyage too. Otherwise the ship would not be able to stay on schedule. The main tug that will be with us is based on Martha’s Vineyard and has about 500 horsepower.   The captain for the voyage has decided to install a hook low in the bow of the Morgan for this tug to attach to, which Sean thinks is an excellent idea, so that the line from the tug cannot possibly foul anything higher up on the ship. They don’t have much experience in how the Morgan tows. Also, its tiller-and-rudder combination is somewhat different from what even the officers of the ship have been used to.

I am now smelling breakfast from the Bercaw Edwards kitchen just outside Mary K’s study, where I slept soundly on a mattress on the floor surrounded by books on Melville and Conrad and even a few of my own.  Mary K mentioned that my Melville and Turner book is out on loan, which makes me happy, since it dates from 1992. I’ll stop here for now.

Continue writing this entry in Arlington, Massachusetts, April 27, 6:30 am

One of my memories from meeting Sean, our future second mate, on Friday night was his practice of dropping notes-in-a-bottle into the sea, beginning when he was a teenager and continuing intermittently throughout his life into now his later forties (I would guess). Recently he had resumed the practice more intentionally during a college-at-sea course whose members launched seventy-five bottles from which they got a surprising twenty-percent return rate. Some of the bottles over the years have led to friendships as well as correspondence. In once case Sean was invited to the Oprah Winfrey show for a surprise meeting with a woman who had found one of his bottles.

We are all interested, it seems, in these small pieces of ourselves tossed out into the endless sea, to see if they land somewhere and matter to someone who has a gift or a need for welcoming something new into his or her life. Sean, after telling us about some of his tossed-bottle results, mentioned that someone had told him of Westerners doing the same with tumbleweed to which they attached notes that were found by others, sometimes very far away. The sending of these random messages to recipients unknown reminds me of the poem in which Walt Whitman compares the motions of the human soul to the action of “a noiseless, patient spider” on a lonely “promontory . . . in endless oceans of space,” launching “filament, filament, filament, out of itself . . . till the ductile anchor hold; / Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my soul” (“A Noiseless, Patient Spider,” 1868).

Sarah Dewald, Modern Day Daguerreotype, posted on April 23, 2014, in her blog Dickinson and the Arts

Sarah Dewald, Modern Day Daguerreotype, posted on April 23, 2014, in her blog Dickinson and the Arts. Photograph Lexi Vornberg.

These ceaseless attempts at connection also remind me of Emily Dickinson writing her poems in isolation in her father’s house in Amherst, hoping that some day, somehow, people far, far way, even after she is no longer here, will “know me,” will “pronounce my name” (“Me—come! My dazzled face,” c. 1862). I am posting here a photographic diptych that Sarah Dewald, a student in my current class in Emily Dickinson in the Arts, posted three days before my whale ship Training Day in the blog she is creating as her final project for the course.


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