Woman on Board

Continued this entry on Thursday, June 26, 7:30 pm

The 4:10 bus to Vineyard Haven was on time, and Vanessa and I resumed the wide-ranging conversation we had begun during the hour from Edgartown to Gay Head. She had then suggested that I begin reading a chapter in the book she was reading, a chapter which gives a detailed account of a purported autobiographical narrative thought to have been written by a woman who had passed for a man on an early nineteenth century sailing ship. This particular narrative was so popular that its story was extended through three successive volumes in a short period of time. It was written with such verisimilitude that few knew or even suspected that it had actually been ghostwritten by a man. It was quite a rollicking adventure, with an array of potentially compromising situations in which the female sailor’s gender was nearly, but not, revealed.

After we discussed the era and conditions under which such a narrative flourished, Vanessa told me in more detail about her project. Her chief intention is to honor the courage, gumption, and resourcefulness of the few women in history who actually did pass as men on ships. Unfortunately, their stories are known to us only by the wisp of a rumor, the shred of a second-hand document, not at all as well-known as the ghost-written narrative or any number of other attempts to concoct or falsify the history of actual women who tried to pass in this way.

Vanessa getting up from her reading outside Martha's Vineyard Museum

Vanessa getting up from her reading outside Martha’s Vineyard Museum

Vanessa getting hair cut to look more like a boy

Vanessa getting hair cut to look more like a boy

To enact her homage to these women Vanessa is wearing the white outfit in which she boarded the ferry to Oak Bluff. The white is to be soiled, not kept immaculate, by the shipboard experience. The shape of the outfit is designed to hide traces of her figure, an effect she has augmented by the tight bandages in which she has wrapped her chest (and which at times make it somewhat hard to breathe, giving her a new appreciation for women in the corseted era). To augment the appearance of a boy, she had her hair cut short, a process she visually documented by having her stylist wear Vanessa’s GoPro camera on a head strap while doing the job..

On the ship she will, it appears, have to be as resourceful as those early adventurers were, as she plans to film herself changing her clothes and bandages on a vessel with no real privacy. (In our cramped quarters in the forecastle, there is a curtain on a wire we can try to close after us after crawling through the coffin-like entry, but once I was in there I had very little room to do anything else than to try to calm myself down enough to try to sleep.)

Forecastle bunks with privacy curtains

Forecastle bunks with privacy curtains

Fortunately for Vanessa’s project, and for all of us 38th Voyagers, the Morgan for this voyage had been fitted with a several toilet stalls and one sink just beyond the blubber room. Each toilet stall provided just enough room in which to stand up or sit down, but this was enough to make Vanessa’s project a little easier than it might otherwise have been. In addition to adjusting her clothing and changing her bandage wraps in various ways, she planned to execute a few other tasks that would be particularly difficult a woman on such a ship during the nineteenth century. One of these was to figure out how to urinate over the side (this ship rides very high in the water). She already had an idea of how to achieve this, and when I asked her about it on board in the morning she said she’d already executed it. For this and other elements of her project, we’ll have to wait for the completed video.

Vanessa showing details of outfit to Lesley on shore at Vineyard Haven

Vanessa showing details of outfit to Lesley on shore at Vineyard Haven

I offered to film her with my camera or my GoPro when executing certain or her more public activities on deck, but she said that would not be necessary because her entire object was to see how much of her experience she could record by herself, since it was only by second-hand reports or fabrications by others that we know anything about the actual women she hopes to honor.

Vanessa Hodgkinson, Squeeze of the Hand, Crowell's Gallery,. New Bedford, January 2o14

Vanessa Hodgkinson, Squeeze of the Hand, Crowell’s Gallery,. New Bedford, January 2o14

Vanessa recently completed an M.A. degree at the Chelsea School of Art. Her thesis was a theoretical analysis of the function of grids (from circles and squares to more arabesque Islamic designs) in constructing the perceptions and habitations in which we live. That was a very satisfying project it itself, and it has richly informed her current practice as a painter (including in the Moby-Dick works by which I had come to know her). She had previously earned a Master’s deree from Cambridge in art history.  She has often thought of going on for a doctorate in some area of art history or practice, but is currently uncertain about the long-term personal worth of investing the years that would be required.


For now, Vanessa is happy to work for a commercial photographer to pay the bills, taking the commissions and grants she can secure when opportunity arises, and having the freedom to accept a project such as this one as a 38th Voyager (even though it was a real strain financially to take the time off from her commercial work to fly over here entirely at her own expense). She would have liked to stay for the Whaling Symposium in New Bedford next week, at which she would have been one of the speakers, but she has to fly from Boston to London on Sunday. Until then, she hopes to make considerable progress on her other “product” as a Voyager (beyond her film), a series of images in which she will respond to her experience on board the Morgan by painting in watercolor over a schematic outline of the ship itself she will have already imprinted on the paper.

Before leaving Gay Head we had both been shocked by the poster we saw for a play about The Whalship Essex currently being performed at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse. The Essex was the ship that had been stove in and sunk by a sperm whale in the middle of the South Pacific in 1820, one of Melville’s real-life inspirations for the ending of Moby-Dick. This poster, rather than showing the whale sinking the ship, makes it appear as if the whale ship is cutting the sperm whale in half.

Poster for The Whaleship Essex on shingled building at Gay Head

Poster for The Whaleship Essex on shingled building at Gay Head


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