In the opening pages of Moby-Dick Ishmael describes New Yorkers of all classes and occupations being drawn down to the shore to gaze at the water as if drawn by a “magnetic” needle. Many of these “watergazers” are what we now call “white collar” office workers. “They are all landsmen of week days pent up in lath and plaster—tied to count4ers, nailed to benches, clinched to desks.” Standing in rapture before the confluence of the rivers and bays of lower Manhattan, these “watergazers” embody Ishmael’s belief that “meditation and water are wedded for ever” (“Loomings”).
On June 25, 2014, 163 years after Herman Melville published “Loomings” as chapter 1 of Moby-Dick, the whale ship Charles W. Morgan returned to the New Bedford harbor from which it had been launched 173 years earlier. This historic event brought out not so much “watergazers” as “shipgazers.” These New Bedfordites brought to life Ishmael’s fictional reverie in a way that would have been unimaginable when Melville died in 1891, his masterpiece essentially forgotten
In the paper-cut Melville the Man that Peter Martin completed in New Bedford in 2013, Melville is alone, at the end of his life, looking down an empty New Bedford street at an unpeopled harbor with only the mirage of a distant White Whale visible under a full white moon. On June 25 of this year, the mirage image was the Morgan itself, first seen through the afternoon haze by watergazers whom we on the ship;first saw on the New Bedford and Fairhaven sides of the hurricane barrier. The hurricane barrier was itself absolutely packed with all sorts and conditions of man, woman, and child, standing enraptured to see the huge, graceful, sail-studded ship glide in all her glory through the narrow slot in the barrier and into the harbor per se.
Long before we saw the congregated shipgazers massing along the shore, we had drawn a flotilla of nautical companions at sea. Not only the tug Sirius but the yacht Rena had accompanied us all the way from Vineyard Haven into Buzzard’s Bay. Here the tug assigned to guide us to our berth was the Jaguar. When she snuggled up and made fast on the port side, the shaggy bumper around her bow reminded one of our Voyagers of a “drowned muppet.” The Sirius, too, accompanied us into the harbor. The set of our sails and the flow of the wind and tide were such that we could have sailed into the pier entirely on our own, but we did accept the direct assistance of the Jaguar as we threaded the flotilla that, already substantial in Buzzard’s Bay, created some real congestion in the harbor itself.
Out there in Buzzard’s Bay we had every kind of watercraft, it seemed, getting as close as it could to us while remaining safe. A police boat had materialized out of the haze and accompanied us all the way in, trying to make sure we had sufficient room to maneuver. It was certainly reassuring, from a nautical pint of vew, to see the loyal Sirius right behind us through the aft opening in Skip’s wheelhouse. But the close approach of the tugs meant that our sailing and tacking were over. We would soon be safe in the harbor, but now we would have to do any watergazing from land. The faces of Joee and Foreteck in the photo below show that the wind had been taken out of our sales.
Inside the hurricane barrier, a number of whale boats joined us, some of the American cut, others of the Azorean design. I had hoped to come in gazing at the hills of New Bedford on the port side to compare their appearance with how Ishmael saw them during his departure in the “Wheelbarrow” chapter of Moby-Dick, but there was too much going on in all directions to try to wear my scholarly hat in that way. A fire boat shot its spray in two strong spouts, as if trying to imitate a whale. We had left the implacable sea for the world of celebrity celebration, but indeed there was much to celebrate.
The shipgazers were so excited to see us, whether massed on land or cruising alongside, that the mutual magnetic needles pulling the eyes of the crowd to the ship, and our eyes from the ship out to the crowd, held us all in a kind of trance that broke only when we eased up to the pier and tied fast.
Several hundred people were massed on the very edge of the pier, and I quickly recognized several of them. I saw James Russell and Christina Connett from the New Bedford Whaling Musem, and Carl Cruz and Laurie Robertson-Lorant from the New Bedford Historical Society. Carl was holding a huge photo of a Cape Verdean ancestor who had been a captain of the Morgan in its later years as a whaler, something that immediately caught the eye of Vanessa Hodgkinson, who had been struck by the lack of people of color among either the crew of the ship or our cohort among the Voyagers.
When we were tacking out in the Bay, the sun had been obscured by a bright haze that created a misty, scrim-like effect, intensifying the sense that we were in some unbounded play space unrelated to anything on land. By the time we sailed through the hurricane wall, a brilliant afternoon sun had broken through as if on cue. It was suddenly quite warm and the breeze had seemed to die down by the time we docked. At the moment of contact with land, our first since we had left the Haven in the morning, we were visibly ashore, but not yet in body. A landing ramp always takes longer to set out and secure than you would expect, and we Voyagers had to gather for a group photo on deck before we went down to retrieve our gear.
We had done it. We were on the historic voyage and now we were off, now able to join all those who would keep returning to look at the ship during the next seven days. During our early morning meeting with the day passengers back in Vineyard Haven, Steve Urbon had told me of the difficulty the New Bedford Standard-Union was having in trying to decide if it could afford the cost of renting a helicopter from which one of its reporters could photograph the Morgan as it entered the harbor and made fast to the pier. James Russell and the Whaling Museum had been wrestling with the same issue, and when they decided to collaborate the issue was solved, one result being the image with which I will end this entry.
Jaguar fast to the Morgan, Sirius off the starboard bow. Courtesy of Mystic Seaport Museum