A Tug Boat and One Man’s Dad

The tug boat that welcomes all visitors to the Mystic Seaport Museum

The tug boat that welcomes all visitors to the Mystic Seaport Museum

My dad's Sea King coffee mug and 1941 victory mug

My dad’s Sea King coffee mug and 1941 victory mug

As Wyn and I walked from the Shipyard Tavern to the visitor’s parking lot, I felt I had to take a picture of the landlocked tug boat that sits right next to the entrance to the Seaport complex in front of the Visitor’s Center. I had worked on tug boats for seven summers during my youth on Puget Sound, and I had of course mentioned this in my application for the whale ship voyage this summer. During high school I had started as a deckhand on the Sea Sled and the Sea Pride, moving log rafts around Everett’s Port Gardner Bay and up the Snohomish River. During college I had graduated to towing log rafts and gravel barges up and down Puget Sound on the Sea Chicken and the Josie Foss, followed by the summer on the Sea King during which we brought big oil tankers into the refinery at Ferndale. I got these jobs because my father Walt Wallace had worked as a deckhand for Foss Tug & Barge as a college student in Seattle and was now making his career with Pacific Tow Boat Company, a Foss satellite in Everett, where he began as dispatcher and was now manager. One of his signature moves at Pacific Tug Boat was to wean the company away from boats such as the Sea Chicken, with its deep, elegant wooden hull, to shallow, steel-hulled boats such as the Sea Pride that he had designed by himself, modern, efficient tugs that could turn on a dime and were powered by state-of-the-art Caterpillar engines.

USS Nautilus (SSN-571), National Archives

USS Nautilus (SSN-571), National Archives

I figured that there must be something special about the tug that was given such prominence at the entrance of a Seaport Museum specializing in nineteenth-century sailing ships, so I looked it up in the Visitor’s Guide we had been given on the Training Day. The Kingston II is a forty-four-foot tugboat “originally built in 1937 at the Electric Boat shipyard in Groton, Connecticut.” She “is thought to have been one of the first all-welded vessels,” having been built “from scrap steel by apprentice welders.” I felt a special shock of recognition when I read that she “spent more than 40 years moving submarines, including the first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus, at the Electric Boat yard” (Visitor’s Guide 17). One of my strongest memories as a teenager is when my dad took me to see the Nautilus when she spent a night in Everett in June 1958 before going on to moor at Pier 91 in Seattle. My Dad was very excited about the visit of this famous submarine because he was still attached to Naval Reserve in Seattle after having commanded a subchaser in the Pacific during World War II. Dad had joined officer’s training in the U. S. Navy immediately in the summer of 1942, when the national crew race at Poughkeepsie was canceled due to the war. I was born in Seattle in 1944 while he was at sea, and he moved our family to Everett for his job at Pacific Tow Boat soon after returning home. He had loved the Navy and had once hoped I would to go Annapolis, but I was not drawn to the military in the way he was, and would have been disqualified anyway because of a bit of a cross in my eyes.

Racing shells in the Mystic Seaport Museum boathouse

Racing shells in the Mystic Seaport Museum boathouse

My dad died in 1997. I wish he could have known about my upcoming voyage on the whale ship. And I dearly wish he could have been with me when I saw that beautiful stack of crew racing shells in the storage warehouse of the Mystic Seaport Archive.

Walt Wallace (third from right) with championship crew in 1941

Walt Wallace (third from right) with championship crew in 1941

Walt Wallace with wife Barbara and son Bob

Walt Wallace with wife Barbara and son Bob

Working on tug boats in Puget Sound had prepared me for Melville’s Moby-Dick in a way that my eleventh-grade English teacher had not. I did not enjoy the book in high school, but I loved it when I studied it as a junior at Whitman College after spending a summer on the Sea Chicken towing logs the full length of Puget Sound. Beginning in 1998, I have spent part of every summer in New Bedford, where in 2000 we launched the Melville Society Cultural Project in association with the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Since then, six of us have visited the Whaling Museum every January for the Moby-Dick Marathon Reading. Every summer we return to tend to the Melville Society Archive which the Whaling Museum houses for us and to plan special programming for the forthcoming year. This summer we will coordinate a Whaling History Symposium while the Charles W. Morgan is docked in New Bedford. We are also collaborating with the Whaling Museum staff in mounting a special exhibition on The Art of Seeing Whales.

The six of us who administer the Cultural Project in New Bedford have always worked well as a team. After our long history together, it was a special pleasure to have three of us, Mary K, Wyn, and myself, in the same whale boat a week ago Saturday. Only when writing up these journal entries did I come to realize the degree to which our Cultural Project team resembles the crew of a whale boat, six individuals who, working together, under the right conditions, can sometimes achieve surprising results even in a relatively brief amount of time, one of us after another taking the steering oar as needed.

Wyn Kelly, Mary K Bercaw Edwards, and Chris Sten next to Peter Michael Martin's Melville the Man

Wyn Kelly, Mary K Bercaw Edwards, and Chris Sten next to Peter Michael Martin’s Melville the Man on January 4, 2014

On January 2, 2014, we arrived in New Bedford on a night nearly as frigid as any the city had seen since Melville shipped out on the Acushnet on January 3, 1841. We felt that Ishmael was not exaggerating too much when he complained about “congealed frost laying ten inches thick in hard asphaltic pavement” upon his arrival in the city in chapter 2. Conditions were so treacherous on January 3 of this year that the city’s streets were closed to traffic and the pre-Marathon evening lecture was canceled. Our hotel was only a short distance from the Whaling Museum, so we were able to walk over there and have our scheduled January 3 meeting with the housebound members of the museum staff by making a conference call from the office of James Russell, the museum’s resourceful CEO. During our time in the building, we made a quick trip the museum’s Center Street Gallery to the Moby-Dick art exhibition of Peter Michael Martin, whose Melville the Man, cut out from a single piece of black tyvek, is our 2013 acquisition for the Melville Society Archive. His stark, striking design, as you can see, was perfect for this frigid day of crystallized clarity.

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Down and Out, 5:30 pm

With Mary K near the end of the day

With Mary K near the end of the day

It felt to good to see so many enjoying the rowing and climbing, such an ideal way to end the day and complete our introduction to the Morgan. Those who wished to linger were to meet at the Shipyard Tavern adjacent to the Latitude Restaurant, so Wyn and I went there for a quick bite before beginning our long drive back to her home in Arlington, west of Boston. The food was just right, and we had a nice farewell moment with Mary K before she went off to round out her duties at the water’s edge. Susan Funk joined us while the tables with incoming voyagers were filling up, giving us a welcome chance to learn more about the museum and the process by which the staff had put everything together.

Wyn's selfie of the three of us

Wyn’s selfie of the three of us

It had been an entirely satisfying day, made more so by the opportunity to chat with Wyn all the way home, no more enjoyable companion being possible. Her husband Dale welcomed us home around 9 o’clock, and we talked and had a drink in front of the fire he had built for us until about 10, a wonderful opportunity to learn about the very satisfying residency he has had this year in a fellowship program at Radcliff College, where he is making excellent progress on an African narrative he is now calling Ghost.

Wyn and I met in the kitchen for breakfast at about 8 on Sunday morning, and she had dropped me off at Logan airport by 9. This time there was no line to speak of at the security check and I was able to sit and make nice progress on this narrative until it was time for the plane to board.

I am now finishing this draft before dinner time a few hours after the plane landed, my wife Joan just having come in my study to say, “What are you doing, writing a letter to yourself?” Well, I guess, in a way, I am, though I hope it will also speak to others, and to the purpose of the 38th Voyager program, before all is said and done. It’s now time to go to the computer and upload the photos I was able to take, hoping a few of them will be worthy companions to what I have written here. My plan is to insert some of them at appropriate places in the narrative when the time comes to transcribe his handwritten journal into a Word document someone else can read.

On the Water and in the Air, 4:30 pm

As we left the Fishtown Chapel right on schedule at 4:30, we had the option to stay to try our hand at rowing a whaleboat, or climbing the rigging, or both. Most of us chose both. The sun had not arrived, as hoped for, but the drizzle had stopped, leaving the boat seats and ratlines wet and a bit slippery, but not enough to deter any who wished to row or climb. Wyn and I were among those who went rowing first, and we got in the boat directed by our friend Mary K Bercaw, who has conducted whale boat intros at Mystic for years.

Smooth return in the whaleboat on Wednesday

Smooth return in the whaleboat on Wednesday

Wyn had rowed on a crew in college, so Mary K put her on the first oar, with me right behind her, so we could hopefully set a good example for the three oars behind us.  Mary K stood facing us all in the stern, where she could call out commands and use her steering oar to correct our course as needed. The oars are a lot larger than I expected, and very heavy and thick, tapering at one end for the hands to grasp and surprisingly thin at the blade end that propels us through the water. It’s very satisfying to row this buoyant boat that feels so steady even with amateurs like us rowing it. Only Mary K knew where we were going, but hardly anyone else was out on the river, so all we had to worry about was matching our stroke to the person in front of us, and then responding to those commands by which Mary K ordered us to hold our oars up, hold them at ease in the water, or push them forward, which we would do on one side while the other side was pulling, the push-pull combo helping us to turn surprisingly quickly.

The sky and river were matching shades of gray, and the temperature in the forties was just the right chill to balance our exertion. We all enjoyed this very much. It would be fine to be a crew member with Mary K as a coach. I know that the Mystic team often races a New Bedford team; maybe I will get to cheer them on if there is a race in June in New Bedford after the Morgan brings us to port. For now, I was thinking of my dad Walt Wallace, who rowed the sixth oar for the University of Washington crew when they won the national collegiate championship at Poughkeepsie on the Hudson River, not too far south of here, on June 25, 1941.

One foot at a time in the rigging

One foot at a time in the rigging

As soon as we departed the whale boat, we walked over to the Joseph Conrad to see how it felt today to climb the rigging. The moist conditions did not seem to matter, and it was much easier the second time. Wyn, who had gone only a few rungs the day before, today, with Susan Funk alongside, got more than halfway up to the standing platform. I had a guy named Jim next to me and was able to move much more steadily this time. I knew from the beginning to put my two feet in opposing rungs, and for some reason I now had no trouble raising my left leg high enough for each new step. I was not frightened this time and I moved deliberately up to where the rigging narrows sharply—and where you go can go any higher only if you are willing to climb back up and out over the edge of that platform, something I had definitely decided not to try. It was just fine to stand on this perch I had reached and to look out over the calm river and a few times look down to the deck before stepping carefully back down.

I will definitely try to go at least this high on the Morgan, even while it is moving, if the ocean is relatively calm and the conditions are otherwise propitious. I would love to feel the ship sway to the pulse of the ocean and to feel the rhythms of nature animating the ship in such an intimate way. (I had not been able to take my camera while rowing or climbing on Saturday afternoon, so Paul O’Pecko kindly took the photos in this section when the Wednesday cohort came in for their Training Day.)

We had stowed our gear in the Mystic print shop while rowing and climbing, and when we returned to retrieve it we found a tidy little stack of this hand-set letter-press keepsake:

Nineteenth-century press for a nineteenth-century whaleship

Nineteenth-century letter-press for a nineteenth-century whaleship

Overview from the Director, 4 pm

Exterior of Fishtown Chapel

Exterior of Fishtown Chapel

At four in the afternoon, the entire cohort for the day assembled in the Fishtown Chapel to hear from Steve White, director of the Mystic Seaport Museum. He very engagingly described the steps by which the Museum had come to envision the possibility, and then embrace the opportunity, of sending the Morgan to sea again. Part of this involved internal dynamics among the museum staff. After making a monumental decision to renovate the ship from the waterline down to preserve its long-term viability as a floating museum truly worthy of its National Registry of Historic Buildings status, there came a sudden recognition, almost as if from the ship herself, that they could do something almost unthinkably more—to sail her. Once this realization set in, the time suddenly seemed right, and staff and donors were ready to buy into what was needed in terms of skill, dedication, and investment.

Interior of Fishtown Chapel

Interior of Fishtown Chapel

One of the key moments for Director White was during a meal with a potential donor who said that renovating the ship was not enough, that it was important to think bigger. When Director White compared this decision to the one President Kennedy had made in the early 1960s to send American astronauts to the moon by the end of the decade, Wyn Kelley spoke for many of us in saying she had already been thinking of the 38th Voyage itself as somehow equivalent to a moon shot. Questions were many and answers were cogent and substantive. We told him how delighted we were with the interdisciplinary nature of our participation and how grateful we were to him and to the whole institution for the opportunity to be part of it. The chapel in which we met had been used by a variety of evangelical denominations at Fishtown, a crossroads near Mystic, in the nineteenth-century before being moved to the Seaport Museum in 1950.

What I most remember our meeting with Director White’s talk came when someone asked, “Don’t you worry about what might go wrong when you take such an old ship as this out to sea?” 

“There is always an inherent risk in going to sea,” he answered.  “Sailors always have to be resourceful and adjust to the moment.  That is what a voyage is all about.”

Scrimshaw and Silken Sleeping Bags, 2 pm

In the afternoon sessions, my Group 1 went first to the Mystic Seaport Archive and then to the logistics session. Paul O’Pecko, Director of the Seaport Library, led us into the Archive through the warehouse back door, where we saw many things I was not expecting. These included an unbelievable array of inboard and outboard motors and an amazing miscellany of whale boats, pleasure boats, skiffs. racing shells, and canoes, each seeming to span the history of its kind. From this expansive storage area (what a gold mine for movie props!), we entered the Archive building per se. Its hallways were crowded with empty, temporary shelves because the compact shelving that houses all the books in the Library had recently been determined to be unsalvageable; these temporary shelves will hold the collection while permanent replacement shelving is being installed by the original provider.

Sperm whale jawbones in storage

Sperm whale jawbones in storage

Undisturbed by all of this as we entered from the hallway was the section of the internal storage where we spent most of our remaining time.  This featured: open compartments containing three shelves of whalebone jaws, below which where shallow drawers which opened to reveal row after row of scrimshaw, much of it carved on teeth of sperm whales extracted from open jaws such as the ones we could see immediately above. It’s always a thrill to see scrimshaw, and I would love to come back and look at these most closely. We learned that scrimshaw expert Stuart Frank, whom our Melville group knows from New Bedford, had recently come through and had been able to identify a great number of these unsigned pieces by the distinctive styles of their artists.

Drawerful of scrimshaw

Drawerful of scrimshaw

(My plane is just beginning its descent to the Cincinnati / Northern Kentucky airport—the wheels have just released and my fellow passengers are craning their necks to see the city and river beneath us.)

Now continuing this entry at home in Bellevue, Kentucky, Sunday, April 27, 3 pm.

Susan Funk welcoming the Saturday cohort

Susan Funk welcoming the Saturday cohort

Susan Funk led the final session for Group 1 in the afternoon, during which we discussed the logistics involved in making sure all the voyagers for the first three transits of the Morgan would be on board and ready to sail on the first scheduled date—knowing, if unfavorable weather or other unanticipated obstacles arose, we might sail on the first, or even second, alternate date. We discussed the ins and outs of the available transportation to and from each of the departure and arrival spots, the absolute necessity of confirming our receipt of any message from our coordinator concerning any change in plans, and issues as mundane, but important, as how to avoid seasickness from diesel tug boat fumes (ginger, green apples, and careful eating the night before were among the suggestions). Several of us wondered what kind of sleeping gear to bring to supplement the bare mattress and pillow that would be provided. I was very happy to hear about a silken sleeping bag small enough to crumple up in your fist, available through stores like REI and Land’s End.

Susan Funk with newly gathered voyagers

Susan Funk with newly gathered voyagers

This session was very helpful to me, and I think essential to us all, since none of us had ever before had this kind of experience, one that even for Mystic Seaport personnel is markedly different from any previous undertaking. I was very happy at this session to meet Mary Wayss, a New Bedford schoolteacher who will be on the same leg of the voyage with me—as will Lesley Walker, the whaling descendent from Australia I had already met in the morning. I am also very happy that Susan Funk will be coordinating our leg of the voyage. She ran this afternoon session as well as she had the orientation meeting for the entire group in the morning, and I have no doubt that she will be a wonderful resource for us before, during, and after the voyage.

Noontime gam

Leavitt's book on the MorganOur morning sessions had ended at noon, when all three groups gathered back for lunch, a chance to chat, and then to hear an overview of the thought behind the 38th Voyage and our part in it. A gam, as Ishmael explains in Moby-Dick, is meeting between ships on the open sea that allows officers and whalers on each ship to share experiences. I sat with members from different morning groups, getting to know more about the voyaging projects of several people I already knew (Hester Blum, Wyn Kelley) and several I was now meeting for the first time (the Manjiro fan, the Middlebury student composer, and the teacher from Connecticut who teaches her fourth-grade students about whaling). Such random groupings and exchanges were, consecutively, one of the great highlights of the day.

Mystic Seaport Charles W. Morgan 2014 calendar

Mystic Seaport Charles W. Morgan 2014 calendar

The overview of the entire 38th Voyager enterprise, and the conceptual planning behind it, was expertly conveyed to us in thirty minutes by Elysa Engleman. We learned that the voyage we soon would be taking was the unanticipated result of strategic planning in 2007 which had first led to a decision to undertake a full-scale renovation of the Morgan in order to save the ship. Then, during the course of the renovation, and especially after the arrival of Steve White as the Museum director, it suddenly became apparent that it might actually be possible to take the additional steps that would enable the Morgan to set sail again. This realization led to a new round of strategic planning during which was articulated the four-part mission of the upcoming voyage. Within that mission, we voyagers who were chosen to participate have an important function as interdisciplinary shipmates who will help document the voyage by sharing our own unique responses to sailing on the ship in its transit from port to port.

Target date

Target date

At the end of the session, we were each given a book about the Morgan itself, a visitor’s guide to Mystic Seaport, and a Mystic Seaport 2014 Charles W. Morgan calendar, featuring new images of the ship each month.

Sitting down to work

Sitting down to work

Shipwright working the planks

Shipwright working the planks

Into the Hold, 11 am

After our Saturday cohort in two groups got introduced to the fore and aft of the ship, we gathered on the dock to split into the three groups in which we would move through the rest of the day. I was in Group 1, consisting of those here today who would be on one of the first three legs of the voyage, the other two groups similarly composed. Each group would in a different sequence (a) revisit the Morgan to explore her restoration, (b) visit the Mystic Seaport Museum Archive, and (c) discuss logistics for the upcoming summer voyage. My group began with the restoration of the ship, so we walked back aboard.

This tour, too, started in the blubber room. Dana Hawson, our guide, had been involved from the time the decision was made around 2008 to go ahead and restore the ship so as to save it. When it had first come to Mystic, the Morgan had been planted in sand. This seemed safe for restoration until it was found that the planks were corroding and warping to such a degree that a thorough restoration would be necessary if the long-term life of the ship was to be preserved. The ship was therefore restored from the waterline all the way down to the keel, with the keel itself, and the keelson which runs above it, nearly the only parts that did not have to be replaced (these having been deep enough in the sand to be moistened enough by water that they would not degrade).

Standing again in the blubber room, we learned a lot about what kind of wood was originally used to build this ship. White pine, with a strong straight grain, was used for the mast and for the keel. For the planking of the hull, which had to be strong, but also had to he shaped into a curve, the best wood was a kind of oak that grew on plantations in the South, a large oak whose limbs curved dramatically (for a curved plank was much stronger if cut from wood whose own grain curves naturally rather than from a straight-grained source). A different, softer kind of wood, yellow pine, is used for much of the inner planking not so exposed to the elements. Though some of the inner planks here in the blubber room were much older than others, the older ones, we were told, probably dated from the first restoration in the 1970s.

Old timber meets new in ceiling brace of blubber room

Old timber meets new in ceiling brace of blubber room

Outer planking of the ship

Outer planking of the ship

In one place the overhead timber we had bumped our heads against featured a very old beam against which a brand-new one abutted.  Dana thought this older piece probably did date from the original ship. Through some of the planks on the inside of the blubber room we saw glimpses of the wooden “ribs,” or “frames,” of the ship that trellis both the inner and outer planks. These were of oak, I believe, too.  Today comparable wood of appropriate length and strength and length is not so easily available. These upward curving shapes on either side are what make the skeleton of a ship laid out on the stocks look like the overturned spine of a whale, whose skeletal rib cage, which encloses its heart, is always my favorite part of its bare-boned shape.

Backing down into the hold

Backing down into the hold

After being introduced to many niceties of the restoration process in the blubber room (including the kind of wood, I think it was black walnut, for the wooden pegs that hold the planks together, some of them reaching from the outer planks through the supporting ribs on through the inner planking), we went down into the hold, an area that will not be available to the day passengers (and maybe not to the 38th voyagers) during the actual voyage. After carefully backing down a steep ladder, we stood on a temporary platform filling the space running wall-to-wall probably five feet above the keelson, leaving only the curve of the bow back to the base of the foremast visible below us. Dana explained that during a voyage the hold was originally filled with water casks whose contents provided considerable ballast when outward bound, later to be matched by oil casks who contents provided comparable ballast when returning from the whaling grounds.

Concrete ballast below temporary deck near base of mast

Concrete blocks for ballast before temporary deck near base of mast

On our voyage there would be no water or oil casks. Instead, some ballast would be provided by concrete blocks such as we saw stacked on each side of the lower curve of the hull forward from the foremast. These would have to be relatively light when the ship sailed from Mystic to New London to begin the voyage, as the mouth of the Mystic River reaches a depth of only thirteen feet at high tide—whereas the ship, at its lightest, draws about twelve feet below the waterline. For safety at sea, a deeper draw would be needed, so considerable ballast will be added when the ship reaches New London. I hope during the voyage I will be able to come down here while the ship is moving, because I am sure the feel and sound of the ship will be different. Besides, I want to try to imagine what Queequeg was feeling like when he was wrestling huge oil casks around in the hold while the ship was underway, everyone else doing whatever they were doing high above him.

When we were talking of the woods used to build the original ship, one of my companions said she had always heard that Douglas fir was used for constructing the ribs and keel of a whale ship. Dana explained that this was not true for the Morgan or any of its sister ships on the East Coast because Douglas fir, native only to the West Coast, was not yet available to builders in the East. In 1841, when the Morgan sailed for the first time, the Olympic Peninsula and Cascade Mountains in my home state of Washington, home to some of the finest fir forests in the world, were still the exclusive home of Native American tribes, Seattle, for example, was not even yet founded until 1851. East Coast, white-skinned hegemony over the region had not even begun until Herman Melville’s cousin Guert Gansevoort successfully commanded the warship Decater in the Battle of Seattle in 1856 that guaranteed that the various treaties the natives had signed in 1855 would in fact open the resources of these virgin forests to East Coast development.

I had vaguely remembered from history courses at Everett High School, thirty miles north of Seattle, in the early 1960s, that our city had been founded by a lot of Bostonians who had eventually been responsible for building the Great Northern Railway that reached Everett from the East, after having tunneled through the base of the Cascade Mountains, in 1893. I had not then connected street names such as Everett. Wetmore, and Rockefeller with the East Coast whaling and shipping industries in the way I am now doing standing deep in the hold of the Morgan. I was now more easily able to imagine the destination of those noble, virgin Douglas firs that were soon to be deforested from the mountain slopes visible from my home town to be sent by rail to become the masts and keels of tall ships near the end of the century during which the heyday of the American whaling business in the 1840s and 1850s had been punctured by the discovery of oil wells in Pennsylvania in 1859.

Worker down in hold seen from blubber room

Worker down in hold seen from blubber room

 

 

 

 

MOrgan masthead high above the deck

Morgan masthead high above the deck

I had always loved the passage toward the end of Father Mapple’s sermon in Moby-Dick in which he offers these words of assurance to apprehensive whalers about to embark upon a three-year voyage into uncharted waters: “But oh! shipmates! on the starboard hand of every woe, there is a sure delight, and higher the top of that delight than the bottom of woe is deep. Is not the main-truck higher than the keelson is low?” (“The Sermon,” chapter 9). Today I was learning much more than ever before exactly about how low the keelson is—as well as how high the main-truck rises above it.