Into the Hold with Bill

Engineer Bill DiFrancesco in the hold

Engineer Bill DiFrancesco in the hold


Sometime later in the morning (it is not as easy to keep the sequence of things as straight as it was on the Training Day), I got to go down into the hold with Bill DiFrancesco, the engineer. That part of the ship was off limits without special permission because its electronic systems were so important to the operation of the ship. In addition to the communication networks helpful to the officers responsible for this nineteenth-century whale ship, Bill oversaw the operation of some of the conveniences we enjoyed as twenty-first century passengers, such as the flushable toilet stalls between the officer’s quarters the blubber room, and the grid of electronic sockets at which we could re-charge batteries for smart phones and cameras. Bill was happy to show his lower level of the ship to anyone who was interested, and I learned a lot from him.

The equipment for which he was primarily responsible was aft on the starboard side.   I don’t have a good memory for mechanical devices, but among the things he showed me were a diesel engine, holding tanks for potable water and for “poop” from the toilets, and a neat battery converter that could switch and save from 120 to 220 volts.   On this particular ship, one of his most important duties was, in fact, disposal of the “poop.” Each harbor had a service that came to empty the tanks, some for a fee, some for free.

Modern conveniences in the hold

Equipment for modern conveniences in the wooden hold

Knee brace with live oak grain

Knee brace with live oak grain

Although electronics is his specialty, Bill loves other elements of the hold. We were still under the tow at the time, but he, like me, loved the sound of the water against the bow. He invited me to come done on my own to hear it in the silence of the ship after we were free of the tow. He loved the wood in the hold, its history, the trees from which different pieces came. He relished the opportunity to show me his favorite knee brace in the hold, which had been made from some of that live oak from plantations in the South. In this knee brace its twisted grain was much clearer than it any other I’d seen. Bill said the wood for this particular brace had come from a tree in a Southern plantation that had been torn up by a hurricane of recent vintage. He said there is a deep symbiosis between Southern plantation owners and Northern tall-ship restorers, for each new major hurricane tears up new live oak for which there is a constant market in the north from ship restorers who are the plantations owners’ only likely customers. Another surprising monkey-rope connection.

Overhead brace with whale-like mouth

Overhead brace with whale-like mouth

After the live oak specimen, Bill took me to a different kind of overhead deck brace, one with a notch near its end, which he was sure was accidental, even though the notch looked very much like the mouth in the head of a whale. He said he showed me that one because he thought I looked like the “kind of guy who would appreciate it.”

 Ditto the next treasure he showed me, something I would never have noticed without his guidance. “See that thin timber in the middle of the room next to that barrel?” he asked. “See the way it curves in on two sides down towards the deck?” He surmised that this timber is probably from the 1841 ship because of how long it would take for wood to be worn away to this extent by barrels of whale oil rubbing up against it.

Original timber in the hold, worn away by whale oil barrels on each side

Original timber in the hold, worn away by whale oil barrels on each side

Bill's computer in corner of workspace

Bill’s computer in corner of workspace

As we were walking past Bill’s personal work space, I saw a bright computer screen over in a corner. The screensaver was a portrait of Bill’s two Newfoundland dogs, one of whom had recently died. Both dogs were great companions, but they were wonderful rescue dogs, too. Bill describes himself as a quiet guy who likes to stay out of the limelight, but who is usually calm in the midst of a disaster. This began when he was seventeen and got to the scene of an accident to try to help the victims before the police did. His dogs doubled as rescue dogs, and one of them made the local television news when he quickly identified the location of a body deep underwater while scanning a large area in a boat.

It was great to have this quiet rtime with Bill when there was so much activity up on deck. I think it was probably when coming up from the hold that I saw the wonderful spread that Jens was laying out for lunch in the blubber room. I took several tasty items from a much larger array, and I’m glad I did . Some of my fellow Voyagers told me that by the time they got down there the day passengers had gone through the place like locusts, leaving not one bite to eat.


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