Out of the Cradle

Vanessa had kindly offered to help me see what I had managed to record with my GoPro. She was met at the pier by Janice McDonough, director of Crowell’s Gallery with whom she was staying. As Janice and a friend were going to get their car, Vanessa walked with me to my hotel, only two blocks away. As we walked, I felt a bit wobbly in the legs, the price I paid for the many moments during the day in which I had savored the way the ship was rocking under me as we sailed. The best words I know for the wobbly sensation I felt as we took that short walk was “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” the title of one of Walt Whitman’s finest poems, first published on October 20, 1859, twenty days after the Charles W.. Morgan sailed out of New Bedford on its Sixth Voyage, returning in 1863 after having missed much of the American Civil War (during which Walt Whitman was to volunteer nobly as a nurse and wound dresser)..

When Vanessa hooked up my GoPro, I was delighted to see that most the extensive of the files, my climbing of the rigging and the Joee’;s tight-wire walk, seemed to have come out quite well. Vanessa had hoped to stay for the Whaling Symposium which began on Monday, June 30, at which she was scheduled to speak, but she had to fly back to London on Sunday to return to her commercial job. We made plans to meet the next day so she could transfer my GoPro images to my portable hard drive, and I was hoping to see the new paintings she was planning to complete before leaving town.

One of seven works Vanessa completed within three days of the voyage

Catch of the Morgan, one of seven works Vanessa completed within three days of the voyage

The oven at Brick, the only try-works fire I saw on June 25, 2014

The oven at Brick, the only try-works fire I saw on June 25, 2014

Finally I was alone after these very exciting days to Martha’s Vineyard and back. I did not have much to unpack because we had been able to take so little with us. I did have journal entries I had written and the photos I had taken to begin to sort out, but that was too much to get into tonight. Moderately tired, I walked up to Brick, a restaurant a few blocks up on Union Street. I had a glass of local beer on tap, a house salad, and one of their lovely signature pizzas hot out of their wood-fired oven (whose brick-work resembled that of the try-works on the ship).  I had a young blonde waitress and I was intrigued by the ethnic diversity of her fellow workers in the kitchen as well as the counter. I asked if she would be able to identify the ethnic identity of each of these co-workers, which turned out to be more difficult than either she or I expected, so rich the mix and so diverse the origins–another measure of the diversity running through the entire New Bedford community as a direct extension of its whaling history.

Bright red light above the half-size Lagoda whale ship in the New Bedford Whaling Museum

Bright red light above the half-size Lagoda whale ship inside the New Bedford Whaling Museum

On the way back from the restaurant in the dark, a bright red light in an upper window of the New Bedford Whaling Museum seemed to be sending some kind of signal.  So did the luminous whale ship on the first night of its historic return to New Bedford.  I can’t remember if I wrote anything new after getting back to the hotel that night. I probably just eased into that large comfortable bed quite soon after taking a long hot shower. After all of the physical and imaginative stimulation of the last two days, I was counting my blessings then, and I still am now, nine days later.

Whale ship Charles W. Morgan lighting up New Bedford on the first night of its return

Whale ship Charles W. Morgan lighting up New Bedford on the first night of its return

 

 

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Shipgazers

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”).

Morgan returns to New Bedford through hurricane wall

Morgan returns to New Bedford through hurricane wall. Courtesy of Mystic Seaport Museum

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

Detail from Peter Martin, Melville the Man, 2013

Detail from Peter Martin, Melville the Man, 2013

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.

Shipgazers welcoming us from hurricane barrier

Shipgazers welcoming us from hurricane barrier

The Jaguar fast to the ship as she takes us in

The Jaguar fast to the ship as she takes us in

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.

The Sirius framed by the aft opening in Skip's wheelhouse

The Sirius framed by the aft opening in Skip’s wheelhouse

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.

Ship at Shore--redo from ed 9-14

Loose fish about to be fast again

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.

Fiore boat welcomes Charles W. Morgan with two high spouts

Fire boat welcomes Charles W. Morgan with two high spouts. Courtesy of Mystic Seaport Museum

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.

Deckhand trhows line to rigging, Sikkema in the rigging.  Courtesy of Mystic Seaport Museum

Deckhand trhows line to rigging, Sikkema in the rigging. Courtesy of Mystic Seaport Museum

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.

Csarl Cruz with image of whaling captain ancestor, far left, pier

Csarl Cruz with image of whaling captain ancestor, far left, pier

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.

New Bedford cohort of 38th Voyagers, about to disembark

New Bedford cohort of 38th Voyagers, about to disembark

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.

Into the harbor with the Siriius and the Jaguar

Jaguar fast to the Morgan, Sirius off the starboard bow. Courtesy of Mystic Seaport Museum

Jaguar fast to the Morgan, Sirius off the starboard bow. Courtesy of Mystic Seaport Museum

Bubbles at the Bow

Entry begun at Comfort Inn, Providence, Rhode Island, Friday, July 4, 7:15 pm

Evanescent bubbles, taut lines, wires, and chains

Evanescent bubbles, taut lines, wires, and chains

After I came up from the hold, and watched another tacking maneuver, we got word that Voyagers who wished to could take turns leaning over the bow to watch our ship cut through the water.  Actually, they advised us to kneel, not lean.  This was a mesmerizing experience I tried to catch with my iPhone and GoPro, but I also took Sean’s advice and made sure I gave plenty of direct attention to simply being present and fully engaged. Those two taut wires running out along the bowsprit above the two chains below them took on a new meaning when Joee Patterson, one of the female crew members, interrupted my reverie by walking out on the wire to make some adjustments to the sheets of the headsails..

Dana begins her high-wire act

Joee begins her high-wire act

This was one of many fleeting moments that passed during the day in a way that is impossible to recreate at the airport now a week after the fact, but whose residue still remains clear and fresh even before I get home to consult the three kinds of images I took on the trip in hopes of enriching this journal as I enter it into the blog: digital camera, iPhone, and GoPro.  Now that I am home, you can see Joee walking out on that one bare wire above the sea, tugging on two of the lines she will deploy in new positions, an act she executes with the grace of a ballet dancer and the fearlessness of a sherpa.  I was fortunate to catch her coming and going with my GoPro running, and have posted the live footage on YouTube..

Dana having a full-body experience

Joee having a full-body experience

 

Tossing the message in the bottle

Tossing the message in the bottle

Bubbles at the bow naturally evoke the message in the bottle that Sean Bercaw tossed from the Morgan. I think it was in the morning, soon after giving us safety instructions, that he first showed us the bottle with the message within. At some time in the afternoon he thought the timing was right to toss it over the side. I happened to have my GoPro handy and tried to catch it on the fly before it splashed into the sea. I’ll see when I get home if I caught the toss. A little later I asked Sean what message he had put in this one. In addition to the basics (a note identifying the ship, the time, and the place), he had also included that beautiful little letterpress sheet from Mystic’s nineteenth-century print shop, so that anyone who finds the bottle can have an appropriate sense of the uniqueness of the voyage.

Bubbles from the bottle

Bubbles from the bottle

 Having known Mike Dyer so well as head of the Research Library at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, it was a special treat to sail with him. He has a quirky sense of humor at times. For some reason he thought it was really funny when I came up on deck after breakfast, saw a container of lemonade next to the coffee Juls would be supplying all day, and blurted out, “Great. We’ll have lemonade all day.” Mike and I had many opportunities to chat during the voyage, but given how bookish we both can sometimes be, I am glad that we can both now say with Ishmael, together, “I have swam through libraries and sailed through oceans” (“Cetology”).

Peter Whittemore being interviewed by stowaway Ryan Leighton

Peter Whittemore being interviewed by stowaway Ryan Leighton

Peter Gansevoort Whittemore and I usually see each other about once a year, at the annual Moby-Dick Marathon at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in early January, when he is often a featured reader because of his impeccable genetic heritage. He had chosen not to come to the Marathon this year, not wanting to put every reporter again in the position of having to ask him the same obligatory questions, so it was a double pleasure to see him on this voyage. I enjoyed getting caught up with the recent history of the Gansevoort and Melville clans. Most of all, I loved being able to share this experience with one of the persons in the world most equipped to savor it. In the photo posted here, Peter is being interviewed by Ryan Leighton, the official “stowaway” of the voyage.  Peter’s column expressing what this voyage means to him (“Melville’s Spirit Calls as the Morgan Sails”) appeared in the New Bedford Standard-Times yesterday, July 3, the day I drove to the Providence airport in which I am again sitting today, writing this entry as I await a plane, this time to Philadelphia, not Charlotte, on the way to Cincinnati.

Vanessa Hodgkinson descending from mainmast rigging

Vanessa Hodgkinson descending from mainmast rigging

One might have thought that Vanessa, Lesley, and I would have seen each other quite often during the voyage itself after the good time we had together the day before on Martha’s Vineyard. But this happened less than I expected. We were each necessarily somewhat self-absorbed in trying to achieve the goals we had set for each of our projects. Once the ship was under way, there were endless things to experience and try to understand about the ship itself and those who ran it. What I remember most about Lesley during the voyage is how eager she was to climb the rigging a second time after the exhilaration of her first ascent. I had hoped to go up the rigging on one mast while Vanessa was ascending that of another, so we could pantomime one of the masthead arias that Queequeg and Greenhorn sing in Heggie and Scheer’s Moby-Dick opera. But I’d gotten the call to climb the foremast rigging so quickly that I did not have time to see where she was. When I got back down from the foremast, I saw that she was herself descending the mainmast. We had been up at the same time without realizing it.

(I have just now arrived at the departure gate here at Providence for Philadelphia, when the gate attendant has announced that one of the crew members is not yet here but rather on a flight to Providence from Washington, DC, which will delay our departure for one hour only. I found when I got to the USAirways arrival counter why I could not get my boarding passes online after filling out all requirements this morning—the connecting flight from Philadelphia to Cincinnati had been postponed for one hour, then for an hour and fifty minutes, and now for two hours, the good news there being that the one-hour delay into Philadelphia will not not affect my connection to Cincinnati, if indeed I am going to have one.)

Matthew Bullard standing next to Steve White on morning of the sail

Matthew Bullard and Steve White standing on shore before the Morgan on the morning of the sail

Among my fellow Voyagers I was particularly drawn to Matthew Bullard, in part for his receptivity and innate stature as a person, but also because of his decision to leave a fine ancestral background in New Bedford to start a new life out west—the opposite of what I had done in leaving my Puget Sound roots to go to graduate school in New York and then spending the next forty-two years of my life, so far, in northern Kentucky. Matthew’s interest in sustainable energy on both the east and the west coasts would seem to be sustainable for him as both a young professional and as a father, so I am very interested in seeing how his career, and his western quest, will develop.  He is one of several fellow Voyagers who had shared some of my fears about sleeping in the forecastle (especially since he is 6’ 4”), but, like me, did not do that sharing until the ship was under way the next day.

Cassie with her gear

Cassie with her gear

Among the crew members I got to know, either by observation or in person, I’ve already mentioned Jens, Skip, Bill, Sean, Sam, Kip, Rocky, Foreteck, Ryan, Joee, Jen, Cassie, Dana, and Mary K.  Cassie Sleeper, the deckhand who first let us loose from the Sirius, is a Californian who has been sailing tall ships for at least nine years. She has a handy little marlin spike in her tool holster than not everyone has. Her boyfriend travels on his job too, which makes for nice reunions when they are off at the same time. Jen Dexter, like Foreteck, is a formidable force in hauling sails. When we had a chance to chat, I asked if some voyages are better than others and how this one on the Morgan stacked up. The worst ship she had every sailed on was one on which half of the crew were having sexual affairs, always hard for morale, and especially so considering the lack of privacy on board and the brazenness with which some shipmates carried on their intimate relations.

The randomness of conversations you have on a ship is one of the great pleasures. I had very much enjoyed getting to know my mother-rescuing seatmate on the flight from Philadelphia to Providence, but our proximity was possible only because we had been assigned adjacent seats (and neither of us had a chance to speak with anyone else during the duration of that flight). On the Morgan you might find yourself speaking with anyone at any time, depending on what happens to be going on and who happens to be nearby. Some of those conversations are as random and evanescent as the bubbles bursting from either side of the Morgan’s bow as it cuts through the water, each bubble soon to collapse its shape and release its little capsule of oxygen into the sustaining, all-engulfing sea.  “Healed of my hurt,” Melville wrote in “Pebbles,”: a late poem, “I laud the inhuman Sea.”

A few more bubbles and more bright light below the lines, the wires, and the chains

A few more bubbles and more bright light below the lines, wires, and chains

Solo Moment in the Hold

Entry written in the hold on July 25, 13:15 (1:15 pm)

After Captain “Kip” had given his impromptu tutorial on the purpose and method of tacking, with a few more tacks about to follow, I thought it was a good time to take up Bill’s invitation to visit the hold alone, especially now that our ship was free of the tug and moving solely from the wind in its sails.

The Morgan tacking on Buzzard’s Bay. Courtesy of Mystic Seaport Museum

Down here it sounds like an unpeopled beach on Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands. Soft easy waves washing up against the bow as on a sandy or pebbly shore. You can feel the roll of the ship in a lovely way here. The sounds of the voices on deck are muted so that you know they are there but not what they are saying. I loved the look of the manila line coiled in the forward port side of the bow, exactly one deck below the bunk in which I slept in the forecastle.  I am sure I never got that curled up or comfortable.

Quiet coil of line in the forehold

Quiet coil of line in the forehold

 

Harches covering ballast in the hold
Harches covering ballast in the hold

 

Alone, silent, you can focus on such details as the hatch covers beneath which ballast was added after the ship passed down the Mystic River. Bill had explained that more ballast was needed on the port side to counterbalance the engine, batteries, and holding tanks aft on the starboard side.  If the ballast under these hatches had not been so carefully balanced, the foremast I had climbed earlier would have been listing to port or starboard.

 

 

 One beautiful, vertical, manila line next to the base of the foremast makes wonder if there have ever been sleepwalkers in or out of the forecastle immediately above.

Line rises out of forehold beams and timbers

Line rises out of forehold beams and timbers

I just took off my shirt and 38th Voyagers T-shirt because it is very warm down here. It is also very quiet.  For some reason, the sound of the water against the bow of the ship makes me think of the motion of the fishes, suggesting a deeper life in the sea beyond what we invaders are adding to it. 

I am going to stop and listen for John Cage’s 4 minutes and 33 seconds before going topside again.

     *     *     *     *   *
Sequence of Sound: infinite, gentle variety, with a slow regular pulse. Toward the end, began to pitch a bit fore and aft, probably in relation to the commands and actions going on above. A subtle shift in the sounds and motion down here, though everything is still gently and peacefully rhythmic.

Intersecting joints and planks holding together the hold

Intersecting joints and planks holding together the hold

Hearing that rhythm, I wonder if 19th-century sailors got a kind of Post-Traumatic-Shock-Discorder in reverse after serving 3 ½ years on this ship. After becoming so attuned to the rhythm of the ship itself within the motion of the sea, would everything when they returned to land seemed impossibly jagged and crude by comparison? Of course it was not like that when the heat of the hunt was on. But they often had so much dead time between episodes of the hunt. In addition to the routine “business of the ship,” they must have unconsciously identified with the motion of the ship in the sea wherever and under whatever conditions they happened to be.

 

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”).

 

Hauling Ass and Flying High

 Before I’d gone into the hold Bill, we were moving through Vineyard Sound along the Elizabeth Islands, with the Aquinnah headland and Gay Head lighthouse far across the water on the opposite side.  According to the charts, the center of this broad expanse is much shallower than you would think. Now, when I came back on deck, we heading into Quick’s Hole, the last passable break in the islands that cushion Buzzard’s Bay and New Bedford harbor from the direct wrath of heavy weather running through the Sound or from out in the ocean beyond Aquinnah.

Chart showing Gay Head (lower center) across to Quick’s Hole (vertically above)

Up the rigging to set the sails

Up the rigging to set the sails

We were going through Quick’s Hole to save the time it would take to sail all the way around Nashawena and Cuttyhunk. Once we passed through Quick’s Hole and the Sirius cut us loose, the crew was free to tack this sailing ship to its heart’s content, which it did. We had done some hauling and adjusting of the sails while being towed, but this was different. One dramatic signal of the action to come was to see five successive crew members climb up rigging on the port side of the foresail on which I had made my climb (eventually going much higher than the futtocks). They looked like black ants arraying themselves to do battle against an oncoming foe (like the black ants Thoreau describes in their epic battle against the red ants in Walden).  

Or, to switch the metaphor, like a line of black spiders marching up into a web, ready to capture whatever bounty the breeze might bring.  Here was a new variation on Walt Whitman’s “Noiseless, Patient Spider.”  Then, as a solo climber would slide out on a spar to wori the lines with hands and feet, we would see an unexpected equivalent to the Dickinson poem in which “The Spider holds a Silver Ball / In unperceived Hands– / And dancing softly to Himself / His Yarn of Pearl–Unwinds” (J 605).

Spider-like dance in the rigging

Spider-like dance in the rigging

Three hauling sail

Three hauling sail

After going higher and higher to loosen and secure whatever lines attached to whatever sails would be coming into play, these distant spider / ants returned to the deck where whey morphed into teams of “beasts” as they hauled on the sails. There were so many silent piles of golden manila lines patiently laid out in serpentine layers on belaying pins around the deck that it is a mystery to me how they know which ones to surround, grab, and haul whenever a order is given. The coordinated power our four or five sailors pulling arm-to-arm and thigh-to-thigh, rising and falling again and again as they chant in rhythm, is mesmerizing to watch and feel. These muscular legs and butts almost seem to bounce on the deck as they pull as hard and fast as they can and then reach up to do it again. They are the human equivalents of the pistons that would be driving steam and gasoline engines after the era fo the whale ship.

Setting formast sails for tacking

Setting formast sails for tacking

Never having seen such hauling of sails at sea, I was so fascinated by the coordinated musculature on deck that I had no sense yet of the immediate effect of these exertions high above. The first time I took time to look up, the sails on the foremast were as I’d never seen them before, a beautiful abstract pattern of triangles, squares, and irregular shapes composing an aerial sculpture taking the wind as if Ellsworth Kelley’s slightly irregular painted reliefs had been freed from the wall, transferred from one kind of canvas to another, and allowed to fly freely into whatever pattern most pleased them in relation to each other.

Action shifts to the mainmast

Action shifts to the mainmast

As soon as I could savor aesthetically the abstract pattern of the newly set foremast sails, the heaving and hauling was pulling me back by the mainmast, where the crew were working the lines to its sails. Here the canvas expanse high above was even higher and wider, making the united musculature even more impressive as thighs, calves, and butts pumped in unison down to the deck and back. At a certain point in the hauling on the mainmast something seemingly miraculous occurred: the larger sail spanning the whole width on the second level suddenly swiveled 180 degrees as if it were a kid’s spinning top until it abruptly stopped, presumably as intended. This new set of the main sail was probably in some exact way coordinated with the abstract pattern in which the foresails had been deployed, but never having been on such a sailing ship, I could not have begun to tell you how. We were really clipping along on Buzzard’s Bay now, giving me my first full sense of what it means to be driven purely by wind power.

Tack picks up full force of the wind

Tack picks up full force of the wind

Buzzard’s Bay is long and wide, a perfect play space for a sailing ship with time on her hands, wind in her sails, and a calm, breezy sea. Once we had a long run on this particular tack, we reversed the process and turned the sails to catch the wind on a new path diagonal to the one we had been taking. It was beautiful to watch the coordinated efforts of the crew as they undid their previous efforts and hauled and chanted anew to set us off in a new direction across the bouncing blue water under the high blue sky.

Breezing across Buzzard's Bay

Breezing across Buzzard’s Bay

Looking up at the result after the haul

Looking up at the result after the haul

I think it was during this second all-out tack that we Voyagers were invited to join in hauling sail if we desired. Of course I could not miss that opportunity. I joined in behind Jen on one of the smaller hauls from the side and tried to match my hands with hers as you grasp the line between your hand and your partner’s hand and pull as hard as you can while your other hand is rising to again grasp once more above her next one, a windmill effect that is quite mesmerizing one you get into the rhythm of it, but of course you can’t relax and simply enjoy—you have to continually remember to apply just the right amount of strength at just the right moment.  It can be very satisfying to look up and see the result.

Too fast to catch

Too fast to catch

After pulling on that line, whose resistance was strong but not overtaxing, I migrated over to another haul that turned out to be quite different.  I was behind Mary Wyss, and as soon as we began to haul, the line began to spool through our hands at a speed so fast I could not keep up. If you had to be a well-anchored Dutch windmill for that first pull, for this one you needed to be more like a magnified millipede, needing many more arms, moving much more quickly, than a mere person has available.

Mast. rigging, sails

Mast. rigging, sails

My third haul came later in the afternoon. This was a large, strong sail somewhere overhead; I cannot not name for you which one it was. We had to pull hard and in unison on this one—until suddenly the tension broke and my butt slammed hard against the deck. So I guess while you are pulling as hard as you can, you need to have some kind of internal gyroscope that tells you how to anticipate the absolutely unanticipated moment of release (although the practiced deckhands say this happens to them, too).  This sudden fall probably hurt my pride more than my butt, as I was able to get up right away and back on the line.

The only time I thought of it again was a few days later when I was getting ready to wear the jeans I’d been wearing on the ship. As I was threading my belt through the loops in the back, one of the loops was broken, probably from my backwards fall.

Broken belt looik in early morning light

Broken belt looik in early morning light

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.