Steering out of the Haven

Cassie Sleeper setting us free from the Sirius

Cassie Sleeper setting us free from the Sirius

As the Sirius eased us from our berth, we had a nice fresh wind from a favorable angle behind us, so for a while the Sirius dropped off and left us entirely on our own sail power. Most of us did not expect this so early in the voyage. The crew began hauling the lines to the sails, and I happened to be near deckhand Cassie Sleeper when she released the line to the Sirius that set us free.

What a thrill to see the sails filling with the breeze and to feel us ease through the water in direct response to that steady force. I began to wonder if we could sail all the way to New Bedford, something no one had expected, but soon we were hooking up with the Sirius again, to whom we were to remain attached around West Chop, down Vineyard Sound, and through Quick’s Hole, after which we would have plenty of time to tack to our heart’s content in Buzzard’s Bay. We learned later that there had been no problem with how the ship was sailing on its way out of the Haven, but we were then running against a strong incoming tide that would have held us on those waters too long to be able to fulfill our goals for the day.

Sailing out of Vineyard Haven

Sailing out of Vineyard Haven

The Sirius coming aside in the morning as we sail out of the Haven

The Sirius coming aside in the morning as we sail out of the Haven

The tug towed us smoothly—or so it seemed to most of us simply passing time on the deck. I very seldom smelled the dreaded diesel fumes at any time during the day. Our reliance on the Sirius for now supplying most of our power, and leading us more or less on a straight line out of the Haven,created the perfect opportunity for us 38th Voyagers to get some hands-on experience with the business of the ship without getting in the way of crew members who might otherwise be receiving pressing commands to haul in lines or speed into the spars.

When they asked if anyone would like to steer the ship, I volunteered right away for a turn at the wheel.  From reading the book about the Morgan, I knew that this particular steering mechanism was notorious for being a “shin-cracker.” But in such steady breezes, at the end of the Sirius’ tow line, I never had to worry for my shins.

The "shin-cracker" component of the steering mechanism

The “shin-cracker” component of the steering mechanism

“Steer the ship?” you ask. “What is there to steering a ship when it is being towed by a tug boat that determines its course?”

Grant "Skip" Wood, steersman

Grant “Skip” Wood, steersman

Much more than you might think, as I soon learned from “Skip” Wood, the steersman for this voyage.

I thought I would only have a turn or two, literally, at the wheel. But Skip saw how much I was enjoying it and he let me keep steering the ship for at least ten minutes, which turned out to be good exercise.


Taking the wheel of the Morgan

Taking the wheel of the Morgan

The reason I had to work so hard, he soon explained, is that the Sirius was “all over the place.” Our task was to keep her directly in front of us, visible through a convenient gap in the railing just to the left of the bowsprit. It felt like we were moving pretty much with a direct horizontal motion through the water. But the Sirius was bobbing up and down like an apple in a teenage Halloween apple-bobbing party.  Worse, for us, it was continually bobbing either to the right or the left. My task was to follow it and, if possible, to anticipate it, anything to keep it centered in that target hole up by the bow.

One good thing about the steering mechanism on the Morgan. It is not counterintuitive. If the Sirius veers left and disappears from view, you pull hard to the left and try to catch it. I learned this soon, but I could not always apply it. Sometimes the tug would slip off this way or that and I would pull the wrong way until Skip, responding pretty quickly, would say, “You must go right, now.”

Where is that Sirius going?

Where is that Sirius going?

Another good thing about the Morgan’s steering mechanism is that it “answers” the wheel so quickly. I was certainly amazed, giving the size of our ship, how quickly the Sirius bobbed back into sight after I had turned hard to the left or the right. I particularly liked trying to anticipate when I had to turn back the other way to hold her steady once she got into our sights again. I enjoyed asking Skip all sorts of questions during what I had expected to be my brief turn at the wheel—until he said, after one of my wrong turns, “Usually, a sailor is quiet at the wheel.” At an opportune moment I did have a chance to ask him if “answer” was the right word to use for the response of the steering mechanism. “Yes,” he said. “That is a good word. Answering the helm.”

What a great experience, to be able to steer this ship–even in a second-hand way, given that the Sirius was at the other end of the line. Skip in his “regular” job is a biology teacher in Tennessee, but he’s had a lot of experience sailing square-riggers and was clearly savoring this whole experience as much as I was.  Of course, whenever it was time to either hook up or let loose of the Sirius in the course of the voyage, first mate Sikkema would resume command.

First mate Sikkema overseeing our maneuvers with the Sirius

First mate Sikkema overseeing our maneuvers with the Sirius

Very few of my fellow Voyagers or day passengers, unless they too had taken the wheel, would have had any idea what drama and sport there was in trying to follow that tug.  The Sirius had me turning so often and so hard that I was glad I’d done some light upper-body lifting in addition to cardiovascular conditioning in advance of this voyage. I don’t shoot guns, but the way my target kept bobbing up and down and from side to side made me think of a moving target in a shooting gallery. Except that you are not trying to shoot or to hit it, but simply to co-exist.

Thinking back now on my ten minutes at the wheel, I was like Ishmael at the other end of the “monkey-rope” from Queequeg in chapter 72 of Moby-Dick. Anything the Sirius did, I had to be ready to respond to at my end of the line. We too were a “joint stock company” whose existence and fate were interdependent. With our monkey-rope, as with Ishmael’s, “Do whatever I would, I only had the management of one end of it.”


Monkey-rope connecting Queequeg and Ishmael (headless, on deck) in Mark Milloff's Stripping the Whale

Monkey-rope connecting Queequeg and Ishmael (headless, on deck) in Mark Milloff’s Stripping the Whale

In the most obvious sense, the Sirius and the Morgan were “fast-fish,” literally tied to each other. But, as Skip was very quick to point out, she was a “loose-fish, too,” and I had to remain very alert in the endless attempt to make fast to her looseness. I later learned from our of our deckhands that the Sirius had experienced a similar problem with us. Previously, she had towed only barges which passively followed her lead. But we had a wheel, a rudder, and a certain amount of agency, which apparently made it as hard for her to lead us as it was for us to follow her. She was still trying to adjust to this new dynamic with us, so both ends of the monkey-rope were both fast and loose. How fortunate that that the conditions of the wind and water on this fair morn conspired to make our monkey-rope interdebtedness more a sport than a matter of life and death.

The Sirius, either pullin in or letting out its line

Crew of the Sirius, with its fast-fish, loose-fish monkey-rope letting out its line

My surprisingly sportive chase of the Sirius also put me in mind of Henry David Thoreau chasing the loon in the “Brute Neighbors” chapter of Walden. The difference there is that Thoreau in his canoe and the loon in the pond are both loose-fish, unconnected to each other except in Thoreau’s imaginatioin (and perhaps also the loon’s), a situation similar to that of the whalers of the Morgan and the whales they were chasing when Thoreau published his book in 1854. Thoreau’s imagination by this time of his life operated on what we now call the “catch and release” mode of the hunting. The Morgan enacted the opposing principle. Once a whale was struck, ship and whale both became “fast-fish,” the fate of each tingling along the whale line in the “Siamese ligature” Ishmael calls the “monkey-rope.”

Osborn's chase scene inside back cover of log book of Morgan's first voyage.  Courtesy of Martha's Vineyard Museum

Osborn’s chase scene inside back cover of log book of Morgan’s first voyage. Courtesy of Martha’s Vineyard Museum



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