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?
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!
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.