Momentous Men and Women

First mate Sikkema up in rigging

First mate Sikkema up in rigging

Up through this part of the voyage, I had not been sure who our Captain, “Kip” Fines, was. All operations of the deck had seemingly been in the hands of the mates. Last night third mate “Rocky” Hadler had given us the orientation to the ship. This morning second mate Sean Bercaw had begun our safety drills. Once the Sirius was in position, and the boarding ramp was lowered away, first mate Sam Sikkema was seemingly in command. He exuded a perfect sense of alert authority as he stood at the bow of the ship, seemingly seeing everything at once—the sails above him, the crew and passengers before him, the Sirius on the side getting ready to run out the line, the sky and sea whose every shape, color, and movement must factor into every immediate decision. I loved his innate sense of authority when on deck–and even more so when he stepped up into the rigging, seemingly to float in its netting as he looked fore and aft, port and starboard, within ship and without, as if equipped with a rotating battery of eyes, as some insects are said to have.

Captain "Kip" Files with his toy ship model

Captain “Kip” Files with his toy ship model

During the voyage I had been peripherally aware of a somewhat older man who ambled confidently about the deck with a certain air of authority, especially when he was speaking with Steve White, director of Mystic Seaport. He was tall, at least 6’ 1”, with a nice handlebar moustache and an easy manner. This did turn out to be “Kip” Files, captain of the Morgan. He revealed himself in a most unique and wonderful way. Unlike Captain Ahab, who did not reveal himself to the entire crew until the appearance on the quarter-deck in which he convinced them to join in his quest to slay the White Whale, Captain “Kip” introduced himself to the Voyagers and day passengers by bringing out a toy sailing ship which he set on the deck the way a kid would, his purpose being to show us the principles and strategy of tacking.

The Captain on his knees, demonstating the principles of tacking

The Captain on his knees, demonstating the principles of tacking

After explaining that a ship has no way of sailing directly into the wind (or even with a wind directly behind it), he demonstrated the way a ship gains power by setting sails at diagonal angles to the wind. Getting down on his knees, he explained how the setting of the foremast sails affect those of the mainmast and the mizzenmast. He explained the strategy of executing such maneuvers systematically until suddenly the “miracle” that so surprised me occurs: the main sail suddenly gets a new burst of wind at a 180 degree angle and sets the ship on a new, desired course. As far we passengers could see, he was not so much the captain who was running the ship as the teacher who was explaining how it ran.

 

First mate Sikkema giving commands from the bow

First mate Sikkema giving commands from the bow

I got a chance to speak with Sam Sikkema a day or two after the ship had landed in New Bedford, and he said there was nothing unusual in what I had observed about the relation between himself and Captain Files during the course of the voyage. Generally, the captain is responsible for the external operation of the ship, and of course he helps in setting the parameters within which the mates will operate. But once the voyage begins, the first mate is primarily responsible for giving commands and deciding, in the flow of the moment, how best to achieve the objectives of the voyage. The captain, of course, is always present as an advisor should he need to be consulted, as he sometimes is, but this is apparently more rare than I would have thought.

Mark Milloff, Stubb on the Last Day of the Chase, painted plaster bust, c. 2003

Mark Milloff, Stubb on the Last Day of the Chase, painted plaster bust, c. 2003

Ishmael in the “Knights and Squires” chapters of Moby-Dick introduces the three mates of Pequod “momentous” men. This phrase is appropriate in two different ways. The mates of the Pequod are momentous in the power of their authority—in their ability to lead fellow crew members right into the jaw of the whale and battle the Leviathan of the deep with hand tools that in general only the most foolhardy person would dare to use. These same mates are equally momentous in their ability to respond to the vicissitudes of the moment. An attack on a target as swift, powerful, and nimble as a sperm whale seldom goes according to plan. In the heat of battle, a mate must be able to read all the signals, hidden and overt, sent by the whale and by his own men, and instantaneously process them in a way that can be expressed in a clearly articulated command.

Second mate Bercaw giving orders on deck as we are getting under way from the Haven

Second mate Bercaw giving orders on deck as we are getting under way from the Haven

On the 38th Voyage of the Morgan, our captain and three mates were not engaged in something as momentous as chasing and trying to capture sperm whales in the whale boats that were suspended over our bulwarks. But they had plenty of challenges in operating a nineteenth-century whale ship in the second decade of the twenty-first century with a crew which, as competent and resourceful as they were, had never sailed exactly this kind of ship. As far as I could see, mates Sikkema, Bercaw, and Hadler were momentous in the way they responded, in both thought and action, to the challenge of sailing this particular ship in our day and age.

Captain “Kip” Fines had given a third kind of meaning to Ishmael’s “momentous” men when he brought out that toy sailing ship with which to demonstrate the principles and strategy of tacking. This moment was “momentous” in its timing.  If his demonstration had come before we had gong through the two ambitious tacks, it would have been too abstract to apply to what we had seen on the ship. Coming when it did, the way he was working the sails on the toy ship recreated exactly the dynamic we had just seen in action.  This also prepared us to better understand the additional tacking maneuvers we would be executing on the expansive liquid play space of Buzzard’s Bay.

Getting just the right amount of wind

Getting just the right amount of wind

Kathleen Piercefield, Queequeg in his own proper person, 2004

Kathleen Piercefield, Queequeg in his own proper person, 2004

Ishmael rightly introduces the mates as “momentous men” during the early “Knights and Squires” chapters.  But once the action begins, none of the three are nearly as “momentous” as the three harpooneers who serve them: Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo. As Ishmael indicates, the three American mates provide the “brains” for this particular voyage and the three indigenous harpooneers provide the “brawn”–Queequeg a Polynesian from the South Seas, Tashtego a Native American from Gay Head, Daggoo and unadulterated African. Each in the course of the story shows remarkable physical strength united with an instinct for whatever the conditions of the moment require. It would be no exaggeration to say the same thing of the “momentous” men and women of the Morgan’s crew, whether scurrying up to the highest spar to tighten or loosen the lines, releasing the line connecting us with the Sirius at just the right moment, walking the bowsprit like a tightrope dancer over a rushing sea to execute some little task at the end of it, or, of course, hauling sail with all your might so as to be able to execute a mate’s order exactly when the conditions are right for the order as given—for the force and duration of the wind can sometimes change as soon as the order is out of his mouth.

Releasing the sails at just the right moment

Three riding high, releasing sails at just the right moment

A day or two after the Morgan was safely moored in New Bedford, I had an opportunity to speak with “Foreteck,” the female deckhand who consistently impressed everyone on board with the sheer strength and powerful motion of her hauling technique. She appeared to be the strongest of all the haulers, hauling that line with what appeared to be reckless abandon, but always with exactly the rhythm and force required. Her arms and shoulders were in themselves impressive, but it was in the butt, the thighs and the calves that most caught the attention as she pulled down and rose up with that piston-like motion in concert with the others, but always seeming a little deeper in the pull, the feet a little more widely anchored on deck.

Someone photographing Foreteck as she hauls on mainmast

Someone photographing Foreteck as she hauls on mainmast

I asked her how she developed and sustains such an all-out approach to the haul. “I just throw everything I have into it.”

I asked if she ever needed a chiropractor when she got off the ship. “Yes, but what I really need is a new spine.”

I wondered if the strongest haulers ever had contests to see who could pull the most. Yes, they sometimes do, and she “does okay.”

Because it looks so all-consuming when she is hauling lines or carrying out her other duties on the ship, I wondered what the biggest challenge was when she was on shore between voyages. “Finding a home. I have to find a place to stay each time I get off the ship. We don’t make enough to be able to have an apartment or a house just to live in now and then.”

Will you make this life a career? “I would love to but I can’t do this forever. I am getting older, and my muscle tears don’t heal as quickly as they did.”

Foreteck in foreground with mainmast lines

Foreteck in foreground with mainmast lines

I guess to some degree Foreteck and her crewmates who have been impressing us so deeply with the power and precision of each haul in each tack throughout the afternoon are like the powerful inside linemen on pro football teams, eventually sacrificing their bodies for the good of the whole. When I had seen Ryan carry Foreteck off like a Greco-Roman wrestler or Europa to his bull on Friday night, I did not yet know who they were or what their role was going to be on the ship. Now I will never forget either one.

Foreteck with author on New Bedford State Pier, June 30
Foreteck with author on New Bedford State Pier, June 30

 “Foreteck” prefers to go by her last name only. When she has to provide a first name, she prefers simply “E,” the first letter of her given name Elizabeth. For me, her “E” can stand for Europa, to the extent that her life has been harnessed to the poweful foce fo mysterious winds.  But perhaps more so to Europe, the mythological queen of the world who wears a crown and holds a sceptre as one of the female figures who personify the Four Parts of the World in the art of the Counter Reformation.  Should the Morgan ever acquire a figurehead, a sculpted representation of her hauling sail would be, as the young people say today, awesome. As Ishmael says of the whale’s tail, “Real strength never impairs beauty or harmony, but it often bestows it; and in everything imposingly beautiful strength has much to do with the magic” (“The Tail”).

 

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