Retracing Moby-Dick on a nineteenth-century whaler.
Photo: Ben Shattuck
When Herman Melville was twenty-one, he embarked on the whaleship Acushnet, out of New Bedford. We all know what that led to. This past summer, Mystic Seaport finished their five-year, 7.5-million-dollar restoration of the 1841 whaleship Charles W. Morgan, the sister ship to the Acushnet. The Morgan is in many ways identical to Melville’s fictional Pequod, save that sperm whale jawbone tiller and a few other sinister touches. Mystic Seaport celebrated the completion by sailing the Morgan around New England for a couple months. I went aboard for a night and a day, intent on following in Ishmael’s footsteps, hoping to breathe a little life into my idea of the distant, literary ship. Below are passages from Moby-Dick that involve the Pequod, followed by my own accounts.
THOUGHTS ON THE FORECASTLE
Chapter 21: Going Aboard
“At last, stepping on board the Pequod, we found everything in profound quiet, not a soul moving. The cabin entrance was locked within; the hatches were all on, and lumbered with coils of rigging. Going forward to the forecastle, we found the slide of the scuttle open. Seeing a light, we went down, and found only an old rigger there, wrapped in a tattered pea-jacket. He was thrown at whole length upon two chests, his face downwards and inclosed in his folded arms. The profoundest slumber slept upon him.”
Chapter 97: The Lamp
“Had you descended from the Pequod’s try-works to the Pequod’s forecastle, where the off duty watch were sleeping, for one single moment you would have almost thought you were standing in some illuminated shrine of canonized kings and counsellors. There they lay in their triangular oaken vaults, each mariner a chiselled muteness; a score of lamps flashing upon his hooded eyes.
In merchantmen, oil for the sailor is more scarce than the milk of queens. To dress in the dark, and eat in the dark, and stumble in darkness to his pallet, this is his usual lot. But the whaleman, as he seeks the food of light, so he lives in light. He makes his berth an Aladdin’s lamp, and lays him down in it; so that in the pitchiest night the ship’s black hull still houses an illumination.”
June 17, 2014
Newport’s fog beads on the Morgan’s rigging—a ropes course webbed overhead—and then showers down in a private rainstorm on the ship’s deck. I’m here with thirty or so other sailors—some professional crew, some donors, and some volunteers, like myself, looking for the same things a Civil War reenactor might look for. Everyone is downstairs (sorry, belowdecks), in the forecastle (sorry, f’c’s’le) getting ready for bed. The fog blots out the nearby ships, their abusively anachronistic lights, and the parking lot at the end of the pier. As I walk the wet decks, I hear nothing but rigging rain falling on wood, and smell only hemp or tar or wood. I’ll later learn that under the midday sun, some original wooden casks get so hot that they release the fishy-sweet scent of the whale oil they once held more than a hundred years ago.
I descend to the f’c’s’le and stand in the horseshoe of tens of bunks lining the snub-nosed bow of the ship. Where is the bath of orange candlelight I imagined, the one Ishmael described? Extinguished by coast guard regulations, it turns out—no open flames, no smoking. (What would Queequeg, who lit up the moment he descended into the f’c’s’le, do?) My fellow voyagers, their headlamps blinding, shuffle from their bunks to the bathrooms, toothbrushes branching from their mouths. Some are dressed in cutely patterned jersey pajamas. It feels more like the bunkhouse of a kids’ sleep-away camp than Ishmael’s shadowy room. Colorful curtains hang from one side of my bunk to the other. There’s none of the pure, oil-deprived darkness of the Pequod. Only plenty of LEDs.
We stuff ourselves into sleeping bags, making the sounds of people trying not to make sounds: shoes, zippers. I’d heard once that nineteenth-century Americans were short. Then I’d heard that fact was apocryphal. Now, buckling my legs in an impossible attempt to get comfortable, I go back to thinking there’s some truth to it. The place is cozy the way a high-altitude lodge is cozy—some ancient form of comfort derived from bunking up with kinsmen and women in a cave-like hold.
I’m trying hard, I think, to do something like time travel into Moby-Dick. Listen to water, I tell myself. I imagine Melville’s first night in the Acushnet, on the eve of his departure. He would go on to round Cape Horn and eventually jump ship in the paradisiacal Nuku Hiva of the Marquesas Islands, where—as recounted in his book Typee, which cast him as a literary darling long before the ruinous days of Moby-Dick publication—he’ll fall in love with a woman and maybe a man, his best friend, Toby. For Melville and Ishmael both, their first nights on the ship signified the beginning of a change in their lives. There was Melville, escaping dreary New England, headed for the South Pacific. And there was young, suicidal Ishmael, going to sea instead of revolver to solve his “hypos.”
The water laps against this big oaken cave. I am feeling transported, I tell myself.
Then my phone buzzes with a text from my older brother, who’s staying on a boat in the harbor with his friend, A.: “Hey, Ben. message from A.: Can we go to the Morgan with rum and drink with your brother?”
“Already in bed,” I respond. He texts, “Are you sleeping on port or starboard side? Will you hear our paddle if we approach with a dinghy? Again, these are A’s questions. Sorry to ruin the moment.”
I write, “No starboard or port bunks. Lights out now. Good night.”
But minutes later: “A. wants to tell you he has oars. He says ‘we can row over.’ ”
I am not feeling very transported.
It’s not likely that my brother is serious, but when he and A. are together, what starts as a joke usually turns out to be serious. I shut off my phone, praying not to hear a dinghy bump against the Morgan’s 173-year-old hull in the middle of the night; hoping not to hear my brother and his friend trying to climb aboard; hoping more than anything not to hear them stumble through the forecastle, peaking through the colorful curtains into the “triangular oaken vaults” as they wake “each mariner a chiselled muteness.”
He doesn’t come. The electric fan whirs through the night. The overhead lightbulb shines with the worried obligation of coast guard regulations.
Newport to Vineyard Haven
THOUGHTS ON BEING A PASSENGER
Chapter 1: Loomings
“Now, when I say that I am in the habit of going to sea whenever I begin to grow hazy about the eyes, and begin to be over conscious of my lungs, I do not mean to have it inferred that I ever go to sea as a passenger. For to go as a passenger you must needs have a purse, and a purse is but a rag unless you have something in it. Besides, passengers get sea-sick—grow quarrelsome—don’t sleep of nights—do not enjoy themselves much, as a general thing.”
June 18, 2014
There’s a stiff wind and a heavy swell from the storm that had passed some days earlier. The sails unfurl and writhe into shape. Everyone is seasick. I put my elbows up on the hot wood of the gunwales and stare at the horizon, commanding myself not throw up. The two people who probably weren’t seasick on their first day—I think?—Melville and Ishmael. Everywhere in the waves are sharp pins of sunlight that jab a multipronged head-and-stomach ache.
Cormorants rush over the water’s surface. A gannet—that long-necked and gull-like glider plane—singularly bombs downwind. Reports of a dead whale in Buzzard’s Bay ripple through the voyagers. “I think I know who they’re going to blame!” the captain says.
I put adhesive dots on my wrist. Ishmael probably didn’t use adhesive dots. I resist Dramamine, sure that it will make me too sleepy to soak in the time-travel. But with my face pressed flat to the gunwale, someone offers me pills, and I swallow them without wasting time for water.
When I finally peel my face from the gunwale, I look around to see that the no-cellphone-on-deck rule is being broken in every direction. A reporter calls his newspaper, yelling into the phone either because of the wind or his historic maritime zeal. Maybe it’s the Dramamine kicking in, but I feel a zesty thrill for this sort of breaking news. “We’re still sailing!” he yells. “Wait! There’s Martha’s Vineyard!”
How are you supposed to go away—how do you get to the “watery part” of the world, as Ishmael called it? There’s cell service almost everywhere, or, if not, at least a satellite creeping overhead ready to lap up an Iridium’s signal. There’s that story of the family off of Mexico, sailing around the world, who, when they ran into trouble, hit a big green button that summoned the coast guard in a couple hours. While the premise of Moby-Dick is that our hero was the last survivor of the Pequod to tell the tale, the Morgan is home to a handful of iPad users, all recording and uploading to the billowy cloud. This reminds me of a news story in which airplane passengers took out phones when the captain announced their flight was going down. A man in an oxygen mask had snapped a few selfies, which were later featured in the New York Times.
Ishmael was the book, the device, the last word. This voyage will be blogged, photographed, audio recorded, commented upon—blasted into a thousand pieces and perspectives. If we keep sailing, past Oaks Bluffs, past Nantucket, into the Atlantic, to the Azores, following the path of the Pequod around Cape of Good Hope, into the Indian Ocean, through Indonesia, up to Japan, and then east, farther and farther, into the middle nothingness of the Pacific where Ahab met Moby-Dick, anybody with a good Internet connection could come along for the ride.
We pass the southern side of Naushon Island, that preserved stretch west of Woods Hole. A wall of a beech trees lines the shore. Here, finally, I feel a touch of time-travel: this view, from this ship, is exactly as it would have been in the 1840s. I am looking at the island as it was, and the island is looking at the ship as it was.
The other passengers and I pocket our phones and cameras as we turn from Naushon and head into the port of Vineyard Haven, Martha’s Vineyard. Tens of boats stream from the harbor to greet us. As we approach land, cars stopped on the seaside roads honk. The few remaining commercial fishing boats blow their horns. A gaggle of children wave from the bow of a fancy schooner. The Vineyard Haven Yacht Club is firing a cannon, it sounds like, and the harbormaster is shooting a water gun. Everyone is ecstatic. The reporter yells into his phone, “We’re here! Can you see us?” As if you could somehow miss us: a 471-ton, 173-year-old whaleship drifting into harbor.
Ben Shattuck, a native of the New Bedford area, is a recent Teaching-Writing Fellow and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He’s currently working on his first novel.
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