18 Hours Before the Mast
By Hester BlumAugust 3, 2014
Image courtesy of Mystic Seaport
THE TATTOO I thought I would get was the head of a Temple toggle harpoon. I was setting sail on the 38th Voyage of the Charles W. Morgan, the world’s only surviving 19th-century wooden whaleship, and I wanted a tattoo to commemorate my journey.
I don’t presently have any tattoos, but I’ve been considering it for a while. I thought that the right iconography would present itself to me at some point, and that it would likely come from the oceanic history that is the object of both my academic research and my general enthusiasm. Images I had considered and rejected include a ship or a whale — but these symbols were too obvious, I thought. I preferred something more specialized or esoteric, like the terrific whale stamps used by sailors in C19 logbooks, representing particular kills. The chance to be among the very few chosen to voyage on the only whaleship left from the age of spermaceti candles and Moby-Dick — my obsession! — on a ship on which no one alive has ever sailed! — here was my tattoo opportunity.
And the Temple toggle was perfect. It is one of the harpoon designs used on the Morgan, but not just the Morgan: it was also used on the Morgan’s sister ship Acushnet, which is best known now for carrying the young harpooneer Herman Melville. The asymmetrical harpoon head features what the New Bedford Whaling Museum nicely describes as a “dynamically upsweeping rear barb, a gently curving front barb, and the ability of the barbs to ‘toggle,’ or pivot on an axle and swing upon once planted deep into the blubber.” I loved this shape, loved its association with the ship. Like a tattoo, a harpoon is designed to embed itself into flesh.
When I started researching the weapon’s history, the perfect aptness of the Temple toggle head for my self-inscription was almost too much. The inventor of this particular harpoon barb was Lewis Temple, a free African-American blacksmith who owned a smithy in New Bedford, that same whaling port where the Morgan was built and from which Herman Melville had sailed. New Bedford was also the city in which Frederick Douglass had found port work — whaling industry labor — after his escape from enslavement. I teach 19th-century American literature and therefore this connection was powerful to me, too. But the final surprise was learning that Lewis Temple had adapted his harpoon head design from one used for centuries by the Inuit in the Arctic, the region on which my current studies and imagination are fixated. My research into weaponry was done: this was the sign I was waiting for.
My journey on the Morgan is now finished. Soon, the ship will pull into port for what is likely the final time. I did not get my perfectly researched tattoo. Why not? When I was at sea, standing midships on the Charles W. Morgan under full sail on a glorious day in early July, I overheard her crewmembers — professional sailors, not skylarking English professors — discussing the iconography of their likely voyage tattoo. They had decided, of course, on a harpoon. Their conviction somehow undid mine; I am not sure, now, that I can ever get one.
This is in some ways the story of my crisis of authenticity. But my small story, like all stories about the Charles W. Morgan, is part of a larger story about nautical expertise, historical accuracy, and 19th-century America. All are stories about knowing the ropes.
Mystic Seaport, the superb “Museum of America and the Sea” in Connecticut, has housed and maintained the Charles W. Morgan for many decades. This ship is not a replica, but a remnant of the time when the American whaling industry was a global force, providing oil for lamps and lubrication for the machinery of the industrial revolution. It is magnificent.
It is also old. The Morgan was built in 1841 and has not sailed since 1921, when she completed the last of 37 three- to five-year round-the-world whaling voyages. The Seaport recently conceived of a remarkable and daring project: to take the Morgan once again to sea, to spend the summer of 2014 sailing to various whaling ports of New England in order to “make history come alive for today’s audience.” But making the ship “come alive” was a laborious process. The Morgan has been previously open to museumgoers but neither mobile nor seaworthy. What’s more, the ship is a National Historic Landmark, and the Seaport is keen to protect the jewel of its collection. Taking the Morgan to sea is in some ways the equivalent of passing the Mona Lisa around at a street fair so that everyone can get a good close look at La Gioconda’s lines.
The Morgan’s current seaworthiness is the result of a five-and-a-half-year, 7.5 million dollar restoration, during which the Morgan became a somewhat different ship. About 15 percent of the boards on the ship are original, including the keel — salt water is a great preservative. I was moved to learn that some of her new planks are southern live oak salvaged from hurricanes Katrina and Hugo. Most of the new timber, though, was recovered from an even more dramatic source. A construction company in the Charlestown section of Boston, clearing the site of a former pond 80 feet below sea level in preparation for the construction of a new hospital, found buried treasure: prime ship lumber, categorized and numbered, which had been sunk in what had been a timber pond in order to preserve the wood for future shipbuilding. The wood dates from the mid-19th century; 18 truckloads of it were donated to the Charles W. Morgan’s restoration. It is not the Morgan’s original wood. But it might as well have been.
This grand undertaking has been a triumph. The Morgan is fast — much faster than anyone had expected. The museum’s website had explained that the Morgan was “built for durability, not for speed.” This was guesswork, since no matter how knowledgeable the Seaport staff might be, no one alive had sailed this ship, remember. What Captain Kip Files and the crew discovered on the first leg of the Voyage, though, was that the Morgan was very swift and responsive. Although the transit between ports — the actual Voyage legs themselves — were designed to be short and cautious, the Morgan’s travelers have made excellent time.
Who has been lucky enough to be aboard when the Morgan relaunched? There are the officers and crew, of course, including a rotating series of deckhands drawn from Seaport staff. Like any smart institution, the Seaport also reserved some deck space for VIP guests and donors during the daylong transits. There is another, ingenious class on the muster list, though, and this was where I took my berth: among the “38th Voyagers.” We are a group of 79 people (distributed over the various legs of the voyage) designated as cultural interpreters, the ship’s public historians: writers, teachers, artists, scientists, musicians, journalists, even Herman Melville’s great-great-grandson. We applied for this distinction by proposing a creative project for Mystic Seaport to share and use in its educational and public programming; our contributions to the Voyage are supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities. We were neither VIPs nor crewmembers; in 19th-century parlance, we would be “before the mast” — sleeping in the forecastle, or fo’c’s’le, like common hands — yet exempt from shipboard labor, like passengers.
For my own Voyager project, I would write a series of essays — this, Dear Reader, is one — about what it was like to read and write as a sailor. Sailors were surprisingly literate for a laboring class (at least 75-90 percent literate, even among common seamen), and many in the 19th century wrote narratives of their experience that describe their avid, usually communal, reading practices. Yet unlike other wage laborers, their leisure occupied the same space, and occasionally the same time, as their manual work; sailors can’t go home at the end of a shift or watch. This has fascinated me. Sailor songs, stories, texts, performances — they’ve suggested to me an unusual kind of simultaneity of maritime labor and leisure. (Digital technology and social media have brought these spheres of labor and leisure into more frequent contact today — perhaps you are reading this at work, maybe via a friend who shared it on Facebook or Twitter.) On the Morgan I wished to take what I have analyzed in literature and test it in practice. How, precisely, would I fill the space and time I was allotted on this whaleship? How would my fellow Voyagers, or the VIPs, or the crew? I have been aboard the Morgan many times before, but this would be the first time I would do so while the actual work of sailing was happening around me. What kinds of imaginative work might happen then, too?
One thing I had read rang immediately true: like many 19th-century sailor/writers, I wanted to fit in. When everything on a ship is collective and intimate — at least, within the different classes of sailors aboard ships, which were sharply hierarchical zones — then fitting in and achieving nautical competency are at a premium. Richard Henry Dana, author of Two Years Before the Mast (1840), the 19th century’s most popular sailing narrative, describes his anxiety about revealing his inauthenticity (he was a Harvard student moonlighting on a long-voyaging ship) to his new crewmates:
The change from the tight dress coat, silk cap and kid gloves of an undergraduate at Cambridge, to the loose duck trowsers, checked shirt and tarpaulin hat of a sailor, though somewhat of a transformation, was soon made, and I supposed that I should pass very well for a jack tar. But it is impossible to deceive the practised eye in these matters; and while I supposed myself to be looking as salt as Neptune himself, I was, no doubt, known for a landsman by every one on board as soon as I hove in sight. A sailor has a peculiar cut to his clothes, and a way of wearing them which a green hand can never get. The trowsers, tight round the hips, and thence hanging long and loose round the feet, a superabundance of checked shirt, a low-crowned, well varnished black hat, worn on the back of the head, with half a fathom of black ribbon hanging over the left eye, and a peculiar tie to the black silk neckerchief, with sundry other minutiæ, are signs, the want of which betray the beginner, at once.
Similar scenes abound in C19 sea narratives; no one wants to look like an amateur. Real Jack Tars, not Harvard boys with eye trouble, go to sea for longer than two years; in the wake of the popularity of Two Years Before the Mast readers could pick up Jacob Hazen’s Five Years Before the Mast (1853), Nicholas Isaacs’s Twenty Years before the Mast (1845), Samuel Leech’s Thirty Years from Home (1843), or William Nevens’s Forty Years at Sea (1845).
Ishmael in Moby-Dick felt this too — he had to stay in just the right kind of inn, choose a just-so ship, sail from just the right historical port. The greenhand wants to dirty that offending limb in the tar bucket as quickly as possible. On the Morgan I didn’t want to look like Richard Henry Dana: off my scarf game, trowsers too loose around my hips. I spent a good three months shopping and returning and fussing over my gear for a voyage of less than a day. I was packing like Ginger for what was essentially a three-hour tour.
Whom was I trying to impress? I am not a sailor, have no sailing background, have never pretended to have any experiential knowledge beyond my academic research. I knew that many of my fellow Voyagers (and many of the VIPs) had significant maritime expertise of various kinds, and I was not looking to affect a skill set I did not possess. But I was looking for something — and I was not the only one. As I learned quickly in my short time on the Morgan, even the most skilled nautical professionals were constantly massaging the narratives of their expertise, of the ship’s authenticity.
If I made any miscalculations in preparing for the Voyage (other than my sartorial worries), it was in misrecognizing how I would occupy space on the historic ship, both physically and imaginatively. Those of us onboard as 38th Voyagers were each charged with writing, or drawing, or photographing, or charting, or designing, or otherwise documenting a “narrative of the voyage,” to borrow a title used in over a thousand books published in the 19th century alone. I was not sure what our relationship would be to the officers and crew, or to the VIP guests, and wondered how it would shape our projects. I was also not prepared for how time would pass in my hours on the ship, and afterward: the flash of the experience itself, the lag in writing about it, the attenuation of the history of the Charles W. Morgan herself.
This is how I first began to learn my own role. There were nine Voyagers on my leg, and we boarded at 7:00 p.m. (excuse me, 1900) — we would have the great privilege of sleeping in the ship’s fo’c’s’le while she was docked in New Bedford. After stowing our ditty bags near the fo’c’s’le’s narrow berths, we assembled on deck to meet the crew and introduce ourselves. This produced my first moment of dislocation. The odor of the ship is thick and rich: she smells of new and old live oak and white oak, of iron and canvas, of pine tar and rope.
It was easy to feel that we were transported to the mid-19th century — that is, if we positioned ourselves out of sight of the floodlights and armed guards keeping watch a few yards away on the Port of New Bedford docks. Sean Bercaw, the ship’s second mate, facilitated the introductions. The highly skilled crew of professional tall ship sailors introduced themselves with great brevity and modesty. Second mate Bercaw kept interrupting to supplement their bios with information they’d withheld. I became conscious of the collective title for me and my fellow scholars as the “38th Voyagers,” with its grand capitalization. It’s not as though we were the Argonauts.
Think of all the idioms for competency that come from seafaring: knowing the ropes, crackerjack, all told, first rate, flying colors. There are plenty of nautical expressions for incompetency, too: deadwood, over a barrel, run afoul, scraping the bottom of the barrel. My expertise in the language and literature of sailing does not necessarily translate to manual or experiential fluency, nor did I expect it to.
But I was surprised by how I felt in comparison to the Morgan’s crew, this terrific, tough, talented crew. Unlike me, and unlike the museum staffers, the crew’s primary job was not to educate. (This is not to say that they were unfriendly or unhelpful — they were great in all ways.) The primary job of the Morgan’s crew was instead to sail this splendid ship — once the most common of industrial vessels, now the only one of its kind left in the world — safely and skillfully and bring her back to her home port.
In the first chapter of Moby-Dick,Ishmael claims that he never sails as a passenger:
When I go to sea, I go as a simple sailor, right before the mast, plumb down into the forecastle, aloft there to the royal mast-head. […] I always go to sea as a sailor, because they make a point of paying me for my trouble, whereas they never pay passengers a single penny that I ever heard of. On the contrary, passengers themselves must pay. And there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid.
I have read, taught, and written about Moby-Dick for 20 years, and it was not until that first night — my only night — on the Charles W. Morgan that I fully understood Ishmael’s determination. His principal motivating force was not the money, but the authentication that the money provided: he earned that voyage by being worth his salt. In the same moment in the chapter, Ishmael acknowledges that going as a “simple sailor” will mean that he is ordered about or disciplined on ship — he is not his own boss, does not have autonomy. This, too, is for Ishmael a communal matter:
However the old sea-captains may order me about — however they may thump and punch me about, I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is all right; that everybody else is one way or other served in much the same way — either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other’s shoulder-blades, and be content.
The “universal thump” — this was what I thought about when I spent my evening hours on the Morgan’s deck with my fellow Voyagers (not the crew, who had gone below), talking quietly or looking up into the rigging, white in the floodlights. Ishmael turns the thump of the disciplinary blow into the soothing shoulder-rub of collective content. This intimacy makes all the difference in the world.
We were roused at 0545 for our race from New Bedford to the Massachusetts Maritime Academy at the entrance to the Cape Cod Canal. We were sailing “downhill,” on favorable winds and tides. Our day was going to be shortened because of weather and tide conditions, which we had known was a possibility in signing up; although it was sunny and warm, a hurricane had passed through several days before and winds were gusting at 25-30 knots. My 24 hours before the mast became 18.
On my transit the winds were strong enough to provoke a small craft advisory, and after clearing New Bedford’s hurricane wall we were booming along quite swiftly under sail before we had even detached from the diesel tug that tows the Morgan in and out of port. I thought I heard someone on deck say that the crew had taken in the forward mainsail because we were going so fast that we were passing the tug. Was this true, I asked the captain? “No,” he said, “but you can write that if you want.”
I expected to write a lot on board. But I did not write a full sentence in my 18 hours on the Morgan. My fellow Voyagers, too, found themselves distracted from the creative work they imagined. Everything was happening so fast, and we were too enraptured by the work of the ship, her press of sail, the density of the masses of rope on deck, and above all the incessant, heavy, and yet sprightly work of the crew. We Voyagers and VIP guests snapped pictures, moved out of the way, took brief, token turns at the helm or pulling on a line when given an opportunity. The speed of the ship under sail was startling. We were moving so smartly that it felt — I was sure — like we had only been off the tow and under sail for about 45 minutes total. My fellow Voyager Edward later reported that he had marked our time under sail precisely, and to my amazement the duration was in fact two and a half hours. All told, the crew worked sail for five hours.
I knew from 15 years of academic research on sea narratives that the work on ships under sail was and is ceaseless and strenuous. The gulf between this book knowledge and its practice under my observation, though, was enormous. I imagine that it yawns all the more between the observation and the act of the labor itself. I thought I knew how hard sailors work; now I know better. I don’t quite know, as I still don’t have the experiential knowledge. But I know better. The crew never stopped. They ran up the rigging, untied gaskets, hoisted sails, scooted out on footropes along the yardarms, sweated away on the ropes that govern the square-rigged ship. They paused for a bite of food, then had to put their plates down immediately when an order came from the mate to adjust the set of sail.
The guests and Voyagers watched. Between the try-works and the masts and the companionways and the ropes and “Mrs. Tinkham’s Cabin” there is not a lot of free space on deck. There is nowhere to stand that is always out of the way; eventually, we would have to move so that a crewmember could work. Although I recognize, intellectually, that my project will make some modest contribution to the 38th Voyage, as the Seaport intended of all our projects, it was hard for me not to feel that I wasn’t contributing when standing onboard the ship itself. What keep, on the ship, was I earning? I was watching a crew partaking of the “universal thump.” I did not feel it land on me as it passed.
The sailors working the Morgan were exceptional in another way, too: nine of the 18 crewmembers — excluding the four officers — aboard my leg were women. The sailors hold Masters licenses of various kinds and have sailed ships of all classes in all waters. I don’t know if national and international crews usually have this degree of gender parity, but I do know that I was flooded with awe and envy watching these seawomen work the ship. They are young and strong and skilled and amazing. I found myself taking what felt like stalker photos of their forearms, their tar-smudged shorts, their harnesses, their knives.
Their knives: the crewmembers all sling belts around their waists to which are attached rigging knives and marlinspikes in leather sheaths. Rigging knives have a serrated edge and are used to cut ropes when necessary; a marlinspike is a long, pointed metal tool used for separating strands of rope in splicing, or in loosening a knot that has seized up. Also, their hooks: I watched the crew take devices from harpoon racks to aid in unfurling sails. My admiration and covetousness in watching the crewwomen of the Morgan work was self-identification, in part; once I too was young and strong and free of orthopedic injury. Once I too was a teammate, a contributor. The presence of these women on ship, I realize now, had a different effect on me than an all-male crew, C19 fashion, might have: they brought my personal estrangement from the labor of sail into much sharper relief.
One of the crewwomen to whom many of the others seemed to defer was especially impressive. She holds an unlimited mate’s license and a 500 gross ton Master Oceans license. She was the one I overheard suggesting the crew tattoo, the harpoon design that I had myself set upon so preciously.
My understanding of the difference between her Morgan experience and mine is determined, in large part, by the sailor narratives I have read. Tattoos are part of those narratives: they are themselves narrative forms, as well as registers of nautical memory. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael is alarmed by the extent of the harpooneer Queequeg’s tattoos when they first meet cute; it comes as a surprise to learn late in the novel that Ishmael himself is heavily tattooed, or has become so subsequent to his Pequod voyage (an homage to his bed- and shipmate, perhaps). What kind of tattoos does Ishmael have? — they include whale skeleton statistics:
The skeleton dimensions I shall now proceed to set down are copied verbatim from my right arm, where I had them tattooed; as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics. But as I was crowded for space, and wished the other parts of my body to remain blank for a poem I was then composing — at least, what untattooed parts might remain — I did not trouble myself with the odd inches.
For Ishmael, as well as for the 38th Voyagers, whaling and poetry commingle. I don’t yet know in what register my own Morgan memories will settle.
The harpoon is not even the crew’s choice of tattoo, as it turns out, and for good reason. Last week, as the 38th Voyage neared its end, a Twitter post revealed that seven members of the crew had received tattoos of whales (the very image I, in the past, had discarded as too obvious). On the very next voyage leg after mine, on Stellwagen Bank off Cape Cod, the Charles W. Morgan unexpectedly and wholly magically encountered a school of humpback whales. These sailors, working their ropes, kept company with the whales for two days. Watching the NOAA video of the Morgan, her whale boats, and the humpbacks in elegant, intimate counterpoint, I wept. Mostly from the beauty and emotional and historic freight of the moment, of course. But I am jealous of those aboard the ship that day. I wonder what else was inscribed in their encounter with Leviathan. My harpoon tattoo is a loose fish for now, and I am doubly adrift.
Where did the 19th-century sailors whom I write about in my scholarly work find the space for their literary communities aboard ship? When could they create that space? My academic research focuses on shipboard reading. The Mystic Seaport staff quite wonderfully outfitted the Morgan with a boxed shipboard library, in C19 fashion, with which I intended to work while aboard. I approached it once, and used it as a stool on which to perch while eating a furtive breakfast. (I felt guilty for eating breakfast when the crew couldn’t because of their obligations to the ropes, so I did it hurriedly and as covertly as possible on a crowded ship. I’m fairly confident the other Voyagers did not share my pathology about not deserving the food the steward provided.)
My 18 hours on the Morgan were a bracing lesson in how nimble and determined sailors had to be in sustaining their social and intellectual lives alongside the physical demands of their professional labor. The confluence of their manual and imaginative work are newly alive to me, as well as the fluency of that labor itself.
Just before we were compelled to disembark and conclude our leg, the Voyagers were permitted to climb the rigging to the height of the futtocks below the maintop, assisted at top and bottom by crewmembers. We were told to empty our pockets, although I kept my phone in a buttoned pocket at my side. When I reached the maintop, crewmember Cassie Sleeper, crouched in the futtocks, told me to take a moment to appreciate the height and the view. I had a different mission though. With no little embarrassment, mindful of the silent judgment I had levied on one of the VIP guests who had spent the entire voyage leg taking selfies, I said to Cassie while holding with both hands on to the shrouds, “May I ask you to unbutton my right pocket, remove my iPhone, enter the unlock code, open my camera app, and take a picture of me? And then replace my phone in my pocket and button the pocket for me?” She took a terrific shot. It’s now my Facebook profile picture, as I had intended it to be. It authenticated my experience climbing the rigging. Every time I look at it I feel both proud and ashamed.
Hester Blum is Associate Professor of English at Penn State University and the author of The View from the Masthead: Maritime Imagination and Antebellum American Sea Narratives (UNC Press, 2008). With the support of a 2014-2015 National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship she is writing a book called The Ends of the Earth: Oceanic Studies and the Print Culture of Arctic and Antarctic Exploration. She is a regular contributor to Avidly.org. You can follow her on Twitter.
LARB Staff Recommendations
The small, lovely, but difficult, ways human beings heal in a world rife with mistakes and misjudgments, wrongdoing and despair....
EARLY IN “Does Consciousness Exist?” (1904), one of the foundational essays of radical empiricism, William James calls “experience” a “double-barrelled” word. Experience, James explains, connotes both a subjective process and an objective product, both a how and a what. Yet this ...
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.