Entry begun Friday, June 27. 7:30 am
Vanessa and I talked virtually non-stop from the Lighthouse to Vineyard Haven. That boxy old white bus really rolls through the narrow roads and comforting landscape of the northwest side of this island, beautifully wooded with occasional meadows and scattered settlements along the way. We knew we were in Vineyard Haven when everything slowed to a crawl heading down a hill, giving Vanessa the time to see a very early Volkswagen Beetle in a parking lot, the same vintage and color of the white one her father owned and wept after losing (not too much older that the blue Super Beetle I drove from New York to my new job in northern Kentucky in 1972—and enjoyed for seventeen years until the Sunday morning I was sideswiped by some high school kids running a red light on the way to an amusement park, totaling the car but not me).
As we got off the bus we looked for the whale ship, and there it was—around the curve of the shore to the right, looming large even though distant. One last trek with our gear, this time through soft sand with very little traction, and occasional obstacles causing us to angle in toward the road to get around this or that before reaching the ship. Finally we were there.
Sue Funk and our fellow Voyagers were all in the general vicinity of a small white tent and a cluster of white plastic chairs not far from the ramp to the ship. The entire day had been sunny and clear in the 70s, usually with a fresh breeze, but here, without a patch of shade, was the first place at which I highly desired more protection than we now had from the sun, that currently being limited to the tiniest corner of the little tent.
Soon we gathered for instructions and introductions. I already knew Mike Dyer from the Whaling Museum, Peter Gansevoort Whittemore from the Melville family line, and Mary Wayss from a New Bedford school for girls. Voyagers I was now meeting for the first time included Revell Carr, an ethonomusicologist from the University of North Carolina Greensboro who had worked at Mystic when in high school and college; Matthew Bullard, a descendant of Charles W. Morgan, for whom this ship is named, now living in Idaho; and Rob Burbank, a New Bedford native whose uncle had sailed on the Morgan’s 35th voyage in 1917. After we went around the horn briefly identifying ourselves and our projects, Sue gave us the plan for the evening. A group photo. A barbecue with the ship’s crew, now being prepared along the shore. And then, at 7:30, the boarding of the ship.
It was great to have some free time with the Voyagers and to meet with the crew. Mike Dyer was sunburned like a lobster from his walk from Fairhaven to Mattapoisett and on to Wood’s Hole for the ferry from there, still highly charged from having carried out that wonderful walk. Peter Whittemore is as present and connected as ever, his spirit newly elevated by a five-day mind-and-body meditation retreat. Matthew Bullard is tall, young, and receptive, here with his wife and two-year-old son from Boise, where it turns out he knows my college friend Walter “Skeeter” Minnick (Whitman ’64) quite well from their shared ecological interests. His descends from six generations of Morgan ancestors, and he went west in part to carve out an identity separate from this rich, but inherited, one. He too is writing about his experience, and I am eager to see what he will produce. This whole adventure is very much a matter of “closing the circle” and “coming back home,” not only for him but for each of us, I suppose, in her or his own way.
Among the crew of the Morgan it was great to get to see Sean Bercaw again, who will be our second mate. He was hearty and relaxed, very much present, especially after remembering me from the evening at Mary K’s before our Training Day. As we were talking, Mary K appeared, after having taken locals out in the whale boats during the six-day moorage here, which had attracted more than an thousand visitors more than they had expected. She’s still the same amazing Mary K, but I’ve never seen her lips so chapped.
For half an hour a mixture of Voyagers and crew members were casually sitting and chatting on those open plastic chairs (the barbecue itself was generic picnic fare—hamburger, hot dog, potato salad, and cole slaw, with cold beer and sodas). Having worked as a deckhand long ago, I was eager to speak with the crew members working this ship. I was soon reminded of something I probably should have remembered: some sailors don’t talk much about their work. As my fellow Voyagers also noted, there were quite a few somewhat short conversations in this first chance to gam with these future shipmates. How different it was the next day when we saw them in action!
At 7:30, as scheduled, word arrived that it was time to gather our gear, board the ship, choose a bunk, and get some instruction from the crew. I had been a bit apprehensive when first seeing our sleeping quarters in the forecastle in April, and I was not any less so now. I didn’t know whether to choose top or bottom, port or starboard, pointing ahead toward the bow or back toward the blubber room. I finally chose the lower berth of a port-side bunk right up in the nose of the forecastle, with a pretty sharp angle at the bow where either my head or my feet would eventually be. Conveniently, there was enough room under my bunk to keep not only my shoes but part of my gear, from which I would now be able to retrieve this or that without bothering whoever will be sleeping above.
As soon as we made our choice, we went up on deck for the orientation to the ship by our third mate, Roxanne “Rocky” Hadler. Rocky went over the schedule for the departure in the morning: 6:45 wake-up call for breakfast; 7:30 mustering on shore for an introduction to the day passengers who would be sailing with us, requiring a new round of introductions; after which would come the boarding of the ship, the safety drills, and the beginning of the voyage itself.
Unburdened by the gear we had been carrying, we got a quick tour of the blubber room and parts of the hold some of us had seen in April. And of course we were free to examine the deck to our own delight. I loved the look of a manila line against the wood of the hold. The masts and the rigging were absolutely beautiful in the evening light. Rocky took questions, after which Sue followed with some details specific to us as 38th Voyagers.
The crew did not have to be present while we were briefed about the role of the Voyagers. Some of them did show a little more energy than when sitting in those white plastic chairs along the shore. Two in particular drew everyone’s attention when one large and well-muscled deckhand carried another large and well-muscled deckhand down the boarding ramp as if they were Greco-Roman warriors—or she the Europa to his bull. They were exuberant enough to draw a measured command to keep it down, something the officers did not have to worry about with our 38th Voyagers contingent, with other kids of concerns spinning in our hearts and heads.
After the instruction, we were free now to do as we wished until 22:00 (10 pm), when the ship is to be silent for the night. No conversations or noises on deck. No phone calls. Nothing to disrupt the sleep needed by all hands for a day that would be exciting and challenging for whomever was on board, whatever their role. Most of us went below to sort out and arrange the stuff we had brought aboard, setting aside what we needed tonight and trying to have what we will need tomorrow available when we need to find it.
Then it seems we all kind of melted away for the hour we had until lights out—some exploring the ship a little more, some going ashore to call or text friends or family, or maybe to take a final drink on land. Peter and I ended up alone on deck and had an excellent nighttime talk about our many mutual interests as we walked off the ship and meandered down the road toward the hotel at which he was to spend the night. I made a quick call to my wife Joan and headed back to the ship. As far as I could see no one was in a bunk yet (though you would not be able to know if that little curtain was completely drawn). I was feeling that the bunk was going to be uncomfortably confining, not so much physically as mentally, a feeling that continued as I crawled into it for the first time to see how it felt.
Sue had suggested that pointing my head ahead to the curve of the bow might be a little better because of a slight elevation of the bunk in that direction, and that seemed fine. I’m just under six feet and I fit in there OK, stretching out full if I wanted my feet to be flat against the next person’s headboard. I had forgotten to bring a pillowcase for the pillow that would be provided, but the 38th Voyager T-shirt I’d just gotten on shore slipped around the pillow very nicely. The silken sleeping bag liner was fine, as the temperature was quite comfortable, but as I was sleeping in my clothes I did not actually climb into it, which would probably have increased my already active sense of confinement, as it is shaped like those body bags designed for sailors who die at sea.
I went up on deck a little longer (I didn’t want to be the first one to try to go to sleep) and then a number of us began to wander in, and settle in. I kept part of my curtain open so I could see some light from the blubber room. I told myself there is nothing to worry about. Hundreds or thousands of others had slept in these boxy spaces since 1841, as my companions would be tonight, so there was no reason to feel terribly anxious. Not terribly, but anxious. Writing this brings to mind a lovely, short “bon voyage” email I’d received from the Moby-Dick artist Robert Del Tredici in Montreal, wishing me good luck for the “salt spray, wind punch, camaderie, and sublime anxiety.”
I did calm myself. I did get to sleep. This had been an excellent day, with everything going pretty much to plan. I knew that tomorrow would be even better, though I hardly knew what to expect, with everything being so new not only for me but for virtually everyone on board. I looked forward to the sunrise.