Voyaging

Lesley Walker's Blog


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Voyaging – The city that lit the world

The time has finally come! As Air Canada Flight AC869 cruises towards North America I think of how the survival of the Charles W Morgan links me directly to both the geographical and the historical world of my great great grandparents and great grandmother. Over the past few months, since I was offered a place as one of the 38th Voyagers, I have started a journey of which I have dreamed for many years – to explore and write about their extraordinary story linked to the changing world in which they lived. When my great aunt Hester gave me a copy of Crusoes of Sunday Island in the late 1950s I discovered that my ordinary-seeming family had a past that was out of the ordinary.  My great grandmother had, at my age, sailed to, lived, worked and played on an isolated volcanic island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

I remember standing in the Vasa Museum in Stockholm gazing in awe at the ghostly ship towering above me. The Vasa sank in 1628 and I was struck by the realisation that this was a sight I was never supposed to see. So too the 19th century whaling ships which Bessie and her brothers and sisters watched whaling, sailing and anchoring off Sunday Island, bringing the world to their remote part of the Pacific and linking communities in Massachusetts, Pacific and Atlantic Islands, New Zealand and Australia. And over 130 years later I was not only seeing, but sleeping and sailing on one!

New Bedford, Massachusetts is where Parkins Christian called home in between whaling voyages and before and after the Charles W Morgan’s move to San Francisco as her home port from 1886 until 1906. Once known as the whaling capital of the world, and the richest town in America, 329 whaling vessels employing roughly 10,000 men sailed from here in 1857. Like so many American towns, New Bedford was designed on a grid, with a modern highway obliterating the original connection of town, harbour and the Acushnet River.

Samuel Rodman's Candleworks, North Water St, built in 1810 for the manufacture of very expensive spermaceti candles. This was New Bedford's first major restoration project.

Samuel Rodman’s Candleworks, North Water St, built in 1810 for the manufacture of very expensive spermaceti candles. This was New Bedford’s first major restoration project.

 

New Bedford Historic District, looking up William St towards the 1834 Customs House, the oldest continuously operating customs house in the US.

New Bedford Historic District, looking up William St towards the 1834 Customs House, the oldest continuously operating customs house in the US.

New Bedford Historic District, Water St

New Bedford Historic District, Water St

At first impressions New Bedford has seen better days. Like New London, Connecticut, another whaling port which I visited in April this year, there are many empty shops and closed up buildings, remains of warehouses and grand public buildings.

Large elegant wooden and shingled houses topped with turrets and towers, surrounded by leafy gardens line County St, the former homes of the whaling merchants and ship owners. Streets called Rodman and Rotch, Morgan and Hillman remind residents of the families who built, funded and owned the whaling fleet in 19th century.

Rotch Jones Duff House and Garden, County St, built 1834 and associated with three families who were closely tied to New Bedford's whaling industry

Rotch Jones Duff House and Garden, County St, built 1834 and associated with three families who were closely tied to New Bedford’s whaling industry

House, County St, New Bedford

House, County St, New Bedford

The city’s loss of the Charles W Morgan the last surviving American wooden whaling ship, to Mystic Seaport in 1941 symbolized the loss of prosperity wrought by the end of whaling and later the textile industry followed by the Great Depression.

It is Sunday. In the harbour a large fishing fleet of trawlers and scallopers, most with Portuguese names, lies idle.

Fishing trawlers, New Bedford

Fishing trawlers, New Bedford

I wander the streets finding most shops, the second hand book shop, the galleries and most of the cafés closed. Even the cobbled streets of the historic district are quiet. The Visitor Centre with interesting interpretation is open but empty. I go on a free walking tour about the Underground Railroad (I had missed the Whaling tour in the morning) and discover another aspect of New Bedford’s rich history, the Quaker link with abolition and the anti-slavery movement, Frederick Douglass’ residence in the town and the escape route the whaling ships provided for those who could obtain the right papers. The presence of Cape Verdean, Azorean and Portuguese restaurants (all closed too!) is a visible link to the whaling voyages and crews of the whaling years.

I wondered where Parkins Christian had stayed between voyages – the Mariners’ Home?

Mariners' Home, built c1790, New Bedford

Mariners’ Home, built c1790, New Bedford

Or in one of the many boarding houses on what is now Johnny Cake Hill?

Interpretation panel showing the boarding houses on what is now called Johnny Cake Hill

Interpretation panel showing the boarding houses on what is now called Johnny Cake Hill

Did he attend services in the Seamen’s Bethel before joining yet another voyage on the Charles W Morgan? As the Whalemen’s Chapel, this was immortalized in both Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick and the eponymous film where Ishmael attended a service before he joined the Pequod under Captain Ahab. A sign on the wall indicates the pew in which Melville sat listening to Rev. Enoch Mudge’s sermon before embarking on the whaling ship Acushnet on 3 January 1841, just months before the Charles W Morgan was launched. In a ironic reversal of truth and fiction and due to public demand, a copy of the fictional bow-shaped boat pulpit in the John Houston film (made in Youghal, County Cork, Ireland) has replaced the Bethel’s original plain box pulpit. The pulpit may not be original or authentic but it satisfies visitor expectation.

Seamen's Bethel, New Bedford

Seamen’s Bethel, New Bedford

 

Pulpit, Seamen's Bethel, New Bedford

Pulpit, Seamen’s Bethel, New Bedford

But the cenotaphs or memorial tablets lining the walls are real. Testament to the dangers of whaling, these record that there would be no last resting place on earth for William Kirkwood, 25, who fell from aloft and drowned near Cape Horn in 1850, for Gilbert Jay, 19, who was lost from a boat in pursuit of a whale in 1822, and Franklin Jay who suffered the same fate in 1832, for Captain William Swain 49 who, having fastened onto a whale, was carried overboard by the line and drowned in 1844 and boat steerer Nathaniel Cole 24, and two of his crew Edward Laffray 25 and Frank Kanacka 19, who lost their lives by the upsetting of their whale boat in the Ochotsk Sea in 1854. Modern tablets to contemporary fishing tragedies show that going down to the sea in ships can still be a dangerous occupation.

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Later in the week I explored the wonderful collections of the New Bedford Whaling Museum and, in the limited hours it opened, the Museum’s Library and Archive. Despite the very helpful staff in the reading room, the restricted days and opening hours were a huge source of frustration for international visitors like me who just managed a glimpse of the treasures within. The whaling fleet logbooks survive in great numbers and just as in Mystic Seaport library and archive, the ones in New Bedford and Martha’s Vineyard libraries are truly magnificent. More on these later!
Next – the 38th Voyage!

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Voyaging on the Charles W Morgan – the first part

On starboard tack across Buzzard’s Bay. Courtesy Mystic Seaport Museum

The moment I felt the ship heel as her sails grabbed the wind was a moment of almost perfect happiness. I stood on the deck listening to the filling of the canvas, feeling the rhythm of the ship lifting and pulling as each sail held the wind and sensing the movement of the keel through the water. I wanted this journey to go on forever! The old language of sailing and ships – clews, outhauls, mizzen, foresail, topgallant, royal – bounced over the deck as the crew “danced” in time to the shouted orders flowing from captain to first mate to crew, echoed and repeated chorus-like as rigging was climbed, yards were raised and lowered, halyards hauled, sails unfurled, braced, backed … how to capture this moment and how I got here?

Geoff Kaufman and crew members. Courtesy Mystic Seaport Museum

My cohort of 38th Voyagers before we left Vineyard Haven. L to R: Back row - Rob Burbank, Revell Carr, Peter Gansevoort Whittemore, Matthew Bullard, Bob Wallace. Front row - Susan Funk, Exec. Vice-President, Mystic Seaport & our cohort co-ordinator, Lesley Walker, Mary Wayss, Vanessa Hodgkinson, Mike Dyer.

My cohort of 38th Voyagers before we left Vineyard Haven. L to R: Back row – Rob Burbank, Revell Carr, Peter Gansevoort Whittemore, Matthew Bullard, Bob Wallace. Front row – Susan Funk, Exec. Vice-President, Mystic Seaport & our cohort co-ordinator, Lesley Walker, Mary Wayss, Vanessa Hodgkinson, Mike Dyer. Courtesy Mystic Seaport Museum.

My cohort of 38th Voyagers had arrived one by one at the Vineyard Haven dock, most of us meeting for the first time and all nine sharing the excitement of the moment, the culmination of months of anticipation and preparation. We all had some connection – physical, familial, intellectual, emotional – with the ship lying serenely at the end of the wooden jetty: Vanessa Hodgkinson, a professional artist from London, exploring the little-known history of women who dressed as men in order to join the crews of whaling ships; Bob Wallace, a Melville scholar who has curated a variety of art exhibitions that respond to Melville’s work; Peter Gansevoort Whittemore, Herman Melville’s great-great-grandson clutching a copy of Moby Dick for all to sign and leave on board; Mike Dyer, whaling curator, librarian and maritime historian at the New Bedford Whaling Museum; Mary Wayss, an art teacher at Our Sisters’ School in New Bedford; Rob Burbank whose great-uncle Jacinto Costa was a seaman on the Charles W. Morgan’s 35th voyage in 1918; Matthew Bullard, the 4th great grandson of Charles W. Morgan, the first owner and her namesake; Revell Carr, an ethnomusicologist who as a boy had stood on her deck as she was floated down the river after her first major restoration in Mystic where, while in high school, he worked as an interpreter and demonstrator; and me!

Vanessa and me on the ferry from New Bedford to Oak's Bluff, Martha's Vineyard. Courtesy Bob Wallace.

Vanessa and me on the ferry from New Bedford to Oak’s Bluff, Martha’s Vineyard. Courtesy Bob Wallace.

Arriving at Oak's Bluff, Martha's Vineyard

Arriving at Oak’s Bluff, Martha’s Vineyard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had spent the morning in Martha’s Vineyard Museum Library with Vanessa and Bob poring over the logbook of Charles W Morgan’s maiden voyage in 1841-45. One of the features of this logbook kept by James C. Osborn of Edgartown, 2nd Mate, is the extraordinary watercolours of whaling and whales – disturbing in their violence and brutality, mesmerising in their colour and macabre beauty. Despite killing porpoises, a shark and a terrapin, it was really Sperm Whales the Charles W. Morgan was after: “Thursday November 11 (1841) strong breeze from the SE, pleasant weather, watch employed in ship’s duty. Saw more Right Whales, an excellent harvest they would be for those who wish to gather them, but we are after what is considered higher game.”

From Journal of a Voyage to pacific Ocean in Ship Chas W. Morgan, Chas A. Norton Master, 1841 kept by James C. Osborn. Martha's Vineyard Museum Library.

From Journal of a Voyage to pacific Ocean in Ship Chas W. Morgan, Chas A. Norton Master, 1841 kept by James C. Osborn.
Martha’s Vineyard Museum Library.

Studying the first logbook of the Charles W Morgan in Martha's Vineyard Library. Courtesy Bob Wallace.

Studying the first logbook of the Charles W Morgan in Martha’s Vineyard Library. Courtesy Bob Wallace.

James C Osborn's whale watercolour in the 1841 logbook. Courtesy of Martha's Vineyard Museum

James C Osborn’s whale watercolour in the 1841 logbook. Courtesy of Martha’s Vineyard Museum

James C Osborn's Right Whale watercolour in the 1841 logbook. Courtesy of Martha's Vineyard Museum

James C Osborn’s Right Whale watercolour in the 1841 logbook. Courtesy of Martha’s Vineyard Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the library I wandered around Edgartown, the main town of Martha’s Vineyard, which I found a bit too neat and tidy, a bit too perfect with lots of holiday makers with ice creams and shopping bags. Then a bus to Vineyard Haven and the familiar three masts towering over Tisbury Dock – the ship waiting for me! There was bustle and activity all around in the dockside activity tents and displays that accompany the Charles W Morgan to each port: Spouter the 46 foot life-size young sperm whale had had to be deflated due to wind strength but the wirework humpback whale sculpture onto which visitors pinned thought bubbles was popular as were the demonstrations of ironworking, rope making, cooperage, whaleboat rowing and knot tying. Voyage partner, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had an exhibit booth with a strong whale and marine conservation message and examples of baleen, whales teeth, bone and children’s activities.

Dockside activities - the wire mesh sculpture of a humpback whale covered with visitors' thought bubbles.

Dockside activities – the wire mesh sculpture of a humpback whale covered with visitors’ thought bubbles.

Thought bubbles ...

Thought bubbles …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At 1900 after a BBQ and a few beers we gathered our belongings and went on board, had a safety briefing by the 2nd mate Roxanna (Rocky) Hadler and were sent below to the focsle to choose our own very narrow curtained berth. I chose an upper berth just near the entrance so I could get out without disturbing too many people. Mary Wayss was below me.

Ready on deck for our briefing

Ready on deck for our briefing

Focsle berths - cosy and narrow!

Focsle berths – cosy and narrow!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That done, belongings stowed, we toured the ship, some for the first time, and then we were left to wander with the warning that lights were out at 2200. As dusk fell, silence descended. Crew members were gathered on deck in small groups, and on the Anchor Deck Geoff Kaufman, chanteyman from Mystic Seaport Museum produced two concertinas and a Hawaiian bamboo nose pipe. Soon a haunting melody from the pipe filled the darkening deck, followed by several lively shanties. Magic.

The Morgan and me - the night comes in ...

The Morgan and me – the night comes in …

Sunset, Vineyard Haven

Sunset, Vineyard Haven

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the night drew in and we went below to the focsle I thought of the men who had slept right here on the 37 voyages – only 72 inches of length and very narrow width with a beam only one handspan above my face.  And no bright pink silk sheets either! At 2200 hours as I lay there I wrote “crew moving about also getting ready to sleep. We have the luxury of a fan to move the air around. The berth is just long enough for me at 5’3″. Surrounded by thin curtains, I can hear zips and snaps, belts being unbuckled, sleeping bags being zipped, shoes being set down. Someone burps, plastic bags crackle. I can barely feel the ship move but it is a very still night. I think of who might have slept here before me, clutching their small private spaces, the only private or personal space on the ship”.

There was little sleep for me this night. Too excited, I found the large fan in the focsle a 21st century nuisance – noisy and cold accompanied by more authentic background snoring from various berths. …. so ends this day.

Ship in darkness

Ship in darkness

My berth in the focsle - the shocking pink silk sleeping sheets borrowed from my friend Sue.

My berth in the focsle – the shocking pink silk sleeping sheets borrowed from my friend Sue.