Lesley Walker's Blog

Voyaging up rigging and over the water in whaleboats

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Training ship, Joseph Conrad

Training ship, Joseph Conrad

I hung just below the futtock shrouds considering my options. With two feet balanced on the ratlines and both hands firmly grasping the shrouds, I looked down at the deck of the Joseph Conrad far below. Could I trust my arms and shoulders to haul me up onto the platform at the first cross tree? I had successfully climbed this far, remembering to keep “three points in contact with the rigging at all times”. For once I decided to err on the side of caution, remembering the time I had gone overboard and had to pull my bodyweight plus sodden clothes back onto the yacht Keepsake. Not easily.

I savoured the moment hanging there in the air. Despite the damp, somewhat dismal weather, the ship was stationary, alongside the dock in calm waters. Imagine how it was for the crew in the Pacific swaying in the rigging, working the sails in winds and all weather! Reluctantly I slowly descended to the deck.

Almost there! P1070387

The iron-hulled training ship Joseph Conrad, 111 ft long, 25 ft beam and 12 ft draft, was built as the Georg Stage in 1882 in Copenhagen and given to Mystic Seaport by President Truman in 1947. There is another Australian connection here, as in 1934 Alan Villiers, an Australian sailor and writer, bought her and renamed her the Joseph Conrad. Coincidentally, for some months in 1995 I lived in a house in Summertown, Oxford which had belonged to Alan Villiers; his widow was our landlady!

Climbing the rigging of the Joseph Conrad and taking an oar in a whaleboat were optional parts of the training day at Mystic Seaport on 29 April with many of us keen to take part.

The whaleboats at Mystic Seaport are long and elegant, double-ended like Keepsake and about the same length, 28 feet. They carry 5 pulling oars, 15-18 feet long, 3 on the starboard side (right), 2 on the port side (left). They are light, open, graceful boats built for speed and manoeuvrability, pulled by oars and also sailed. Directed by the boat steerer Mary Kay in the stern, five of us took our places and grasped the ends of long heavy oars. I was Oar No. 1 closest to the bow. We were shown the strokes and told the commands: “pull together”, “push together” or “stern all”, “avast”, “hold water”, “rest oars” and “out oars”. So much to remember! There was some mention of “catching crabs” which seemed to be a hazard to avoid. The port rower in front of me fell victim to the “crabs” first and then I experienced exactly what that meant. My oar blade caught in the water and tried to pull me backwards off the seat. To recover, you need to push down on the handle of the oar quickly and firmly so the blade comes out of the water. Fortunately that was instinctive! After a lot of awkwardness and being out of stroke, the moment came when suddenly we were pulling together and moving through the water as one. It was magic!

Mary Kay trying to get a motley whaleboat crew into shape!

Mary Kay trying to get a motley whaleboat crew into shape!

Later, feeling my sore shoulders unaccustomed to rowing, I considered the experience. Imagine being an oarsman in a whaleboat attached by a long line to a very angry whale in the middle of a vast ocean. As Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick, “ a stove boat will make me immortal … there is death in this business of whaling”. But for Tom Bell and his family on Sunday (Raoul) Island, the gift of such a whaleboat by Captain Brightman of the New Bedford whaleship California in 1880s was “the one thing we need more than anything else”.

Whaleboats at Mystic Seaport

Whaleboats at Mystic Seaport

Next – Whaling logbooks as windows to the past


Author: lesleybw

Traveller, explorer, writer, reader, sailor, free spirit, historian and heritage professional, fascinated with the interconnection between past and present, people and places. Lover of the sea and islands, I am happiest on or by the water with the sounds of sails, seabirds, waves, winds and even storms. Currently I am researching the South Pacific in the second half of the 19th and early 20th century - whaling, exploration, settlements, trading, colonial politics, aspirations and conflicts, 'black birding', the Bounty legacy - and writing the stories of my great-great-grandparent's life on a remote Pacific Island. I carry their restless spirits in my bones!

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