Before I’d gone into the hold Bill, we were moving through Vineyard Sound along the Elizabeth Islands, with the Aquinnah headland and Gay Head lighthouse far across the water on the opposite side. According to the charts, the center of this broad expanse is much shallower than you would think. Now, when I came back on deck, we heading into Quick’s Hole, the last passable break in the islands that cushion Buzzard’s Bay and New Bedford harbor from the direct wrath of heavy weather running through the Sound or from out in the ocean beyond Aquinnah.
We were going through Quick’s Hole to save the time it would take to sail all the way around Nashawena and Cuttyhunk. Once we passed through Quick’s Hole and the Sirius cut us loose, the crew was free to tack this sailing ship to its heart’s content, which it did. We had done some hauling and adjusting of the sails while being towed, but this was different. One dramatic signal of the action to come was to see five successive crew members climb up rigging on the port side of the foresail on which I had made my climb (eventually going much higher than the futtocks). They looked like black ants arraying themselves to do battle against an oncoming foe (like the black ants Thoreau describes in their epic battle against the red ants in Walden).
Or, to switch the metaphor, like a line of black spiders marching up into a web, ready to capture whatever bounty the breeze might bring. Here was a new variation on Walt Whitman’s “Noiseless, Patient Spider.” Then, as a solo climber would slide out on a spar to wori the lines with hands and feet, we would see an unexpected equivalent to the Dickinson poem in which “The Spider holds a Silver Ball / In unperceived Hands– / And dancing softly to Himself / His Yarn of Pearl–Unwinds” (J 605).
After going higher and higher to loosen and secure whatever lines attached to whatever sails would be coming into play, these distant spider / ants returned to the deck where whey morphed into teams of “beasts” as they hauled on the sails. There were so many silent piles of golden manila lines patiently laid out in serpentine layers on belaying pins around the deck that it is a mystery to me how they know which ones to surround, grab, and haul whenever a order is given. The coordinated power our four or five sailors pulling arm-to-arm and thigh-to-thigh, rising and falling again and again as they chant in rhythm, is mesmerizing to watch and feel. These muscular legs and butts almost seem to bounce on the deck as they pull as hard and fast as they can and then reach up to do it again. They are the human equivalents of the pistons that would be driving steam and gasoline engines after the era fo the whale ship.
Never having seen such hauling of sails at sea, I was so fascinated by the coordinated musculature on deck that I had no sense yet of the immediate effect of these exertions high above. The first time I took time to look up, the sails on the foremast were as I’d never seen them before, a beautiful abstract pattern of triangles, squares, and irregular shapes composing an aerial sculpture taking the wind as if Ellsworth Kelley’s slightly irregular painted reliefs had been freed from the wall, transferred from one kind of canvas to another, and allowed to fly freely into whatever pattern most pleased them in relation to each other.
As soon as I could savor aesthetically the abstract pattern of the newly set foremast sails, the heaving and hauling was pulling me back by the mainmast, where the crew were working the lines to its sails. Here the canvas expanse high above was even higher and wider, making the united musculature even more impressive as thighs, calves, and butts pumped in unison down to the deck and back. At a certain point in the hauling on the mainmast something seemingly miraculous occurred: the larger sail spanning the whole width on the second level suddenly swiveled 180 degrees as if it were a kid’s spinning top until it abruptly stopped, presumably as intended. This new set of the main sail was probably in some exact way coordinated with the abstract pattern in which the foresails had been deployed, but never having been on such a sailing ship, I could not have begun to tell you how. We were really clipping along on Buzzard’s Bay now, giving me my first full sense of what it means to be driven purely by wind power.
Buzzard’s Bay is long and wide, a perfect play space for a sailing ship with time on her hands, wind in her sails, and a calm, breezy sea. Once we had a long run on this particular tack, we reversed the process and turned the sails to catch the wind on a new path diagonal to the one we had been taking. It was beautiful to watch the coordinated efforts of the crew as they undid their previous efforts and hauled and chanted anew to set us off in a new direction across the bouncing blue water under the high blue sky.
I think it was during this second all-out tack that we Voyagers were invited to join in hauling sail if we desired. Of course I could not miss that opportunity. I joined in behind Jen on one of the smaller hauls from the side and tried to match my hands with hers as you grasp the line between your hand and your partner’s hand and pull as hard as you can while your other hand is rising to again grasp once more above her next one, a windmill effect that is quite mesmerizing one you get into the rhythm of it, but of course you can’t relax and simply enjoy—you have to continually remember to apply just the right amount of strength at just the right moment. It can be very satisfying to look up and see the result.
After pulling on that line, whose resistance was strong but not overtaxing, I migrated over to another haul that turned out to be quite different. I was behind Mary Wyss, and as soon as we began to haul, the line began to spool through our hands at a speed so fast I could not keep up. If you had to be a well-anchored Dutch windmill for that first pull, for this one you needed to be more like a magnified millipede, needing many more arms, moving much more quickly, than a mere person has available.
My third haul came later in the afternoon. This was a large, strong sail somewhere overhead; I cannot not name for you which one it was. We had to pull hard and in unison on this one—until suddenly the tension broke and my butt slammed hard against the deck. So I guess while you are pulling as hard as you can, you need to have some kind of internal gyroscope that tells you how to anticipate the absolutely unanticipated moment of release (although the practiced deckhands say this happens to them, too). This sudden fall probably hurt my pride more than my butt, as I was able to get up right away and back on the line.
The only time I thought of it again was a few days later when I was getting ready to wear the jeans I’d been wearing on the ship. As I was threading my belt through the loops in the back, one of the loops was broken, probably from my backwards fall.