Wyn Kelley: Voyage Journal

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Journal of the 38
th Voyage of the CHARLES W. MORGAN
Date: July 7-9, 2014

Though the Clerk of the Weather insist,
And lay down the weather-law,
Pintado and gannet they wist
That the winds blow whither they list
In tempest or flaw. (Herman Melville, “Pebbles I”)

I found myself blown about by all kinds of winds on this Voyage. If they weren’t exactly the ones that “pintado and gannet” rely on, they certainly took me in new and unexpected directions.

Here are my notes from July 7-9, relating to the leg on which I sailed from New Bedford to Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay:


7/7/14 8:14 am I’m still trying to figure out how I’ll handle my writing. I bought a notebook but am also bringing the IPad, which is lighter than my laptop, smaller, of course, and holds a charge a lot longer. Am not sure if I’ll be able to write in the morning, as I usually do, and if so whether it will be on the IPad. I may end up writing in the notebook and transcribing everything when I get back. There was some discussion on the Morgan listserv about totemic objects people are bringing—a number of copies of Moby-Dick. I’m bringing Melville’s poems too. Have my binoculars. Sunscreen, hat, various Ishmael and Melville T-shirts. I don’t feel ready for this at all, and I think that’s the point. If I felt ready, it wouldn’t be an adventure, and I’m sure Melville didn’t feel ready either. For him, of course, it wasn’t solely an adventure; it was a job, and I have a job too.

My goal is to assess the kind of information people used on these ships and to understand it in terms of the information one gets in a poem or novel and the information we encounter in classrooms. I think that’s what I’m trying to find out, but it’s still amorphous.

Now to check my packing and make sure I have everything, can make it to Mass Maritime (I went there once before to do a talk with Mary K Bercaw Edwards from Mystic Seaport and Mike Dyer, New Bedford Whaling Museum). It’s like going to the moon! A whole new world. Wish I had more of Melville’s writings memorized. Should I load them into Dropbox for reference on board the ship? Why didn’t I think of that before? What else have I neglected to consider? Am feeling more nervous than I expected to.


7/7/14 4:19 pm [in New Bedford before the Voyage]

Have just arrived in New Bedford and am writing upstairs at the New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library. Am trying out the IPad as a way of writing on the ship. It’s great so far, but the table isn’t moving at all, so maybe this isn’t a good indication of what the ship will be like.

Have met Mike Bancroft (naval architect from Maryland), Ed Baker (Director of New London Historical Society), Bex Gilbert (grad student in environmental studies at Yale School of Forestry), Courtney Leonard (artist and member of Shinnecock Nation), Michelle Moon (Ass’t Director of Adult Programs at Peabody Essex and a good friend of Mary K’s), Ger Tysk (novelist, author of The Sea God at Sunrise, about Manjiro). Still to come: Hester Blum, scholar of literary communities among Polar expeditions, who is arriving later, and Cristina Baptista, teacher at Convent of the Sacred Heart in Greenwich, CT working on the Portuguese immigrant story.  Am feeling a lot more comfortable than I expected—everyone very warm and friendly. Also met Maribeth Bielinski, our coordinator, who came to greet us at the pier and took us to stow our gear in the trailer set aside for us. The group set out to explore the museum and town, but I came over to the library to recharge my cellphone and have a few quiet moments. I need to process all this.

It was blowing a gale in Buzzards Bay this afternoon, and I got out my long-sleeve shirt and put it on, but it was hot when we got to New Bedford. Strange to see all the security people gone after the week-long exhibits on the pier and to drive in the van past a single guard, not even sure if he was a guard.  Everyone a little nervous, certainly, about what’s happening, nobody sure of what to expect, but we all lined up for a photo with the ship in the background, and felt happy to be part of something.

July 8, 2014 [written aboard the Morgan on my IPad]

5:35 am Only ten minutes until official wake-up time for the Voyagers. It’s quite light on deck, and a few of the crew are moving around. I was up earlier, at 2:30 am, came up on deck and looked up at the sky for a few minutes—everything appears through thickets of rigging, which seem to have a language of their own, one I do not understand.

Plans have changed. We are greeting the visitors at 6:45 and setting sail at 7:30, I believe. Will get to Buzzards Bay by 1 or so, an early day and a short run. I feel sad about that and may cut short the writing and/or switch to a notebook so I can participate more fully in the experience. Already another Voyager, Ger Tysk, has come on deck to take pictures of the dawn, and various deck hands are gathering around the coffee urn. Wonder how the coffee is. I’m seated on a low bench facing the town but can still see the gulls soaring and feel the breeze.  It was an adventurous night in the forecastle. Got up at 2:30 am and wandered about the deck ALONE. Could see the moon in the rigging, could feel the wooden planks warm under my bare feet, could vividly imagine Melville’s midnight watches. Went back down to the forecastle and slept again until a few of the deckhands got up and dressed in the dark near my head. I got up soon after 5, collected what I needed into my small bag, and used the head as a place to change. Finished my toilette at the tiny sink, where I brushed my teeth and rearranged my hair.

Yesterday’s activity was exciting, and I should have written it down last night, but I got distracted. Must stop.


7/9/14 6:27 am Have imported and gone over my notes from the ship. Precious little material! I thought I might write last night but was exhausted and good for little more than tweeting and Facebooking pictures from the large number I took. Glad I did, because they will help me remember things.

From that early morning yesterday when I put my IPad away, I didn’t write anything else, and it was a completely active, immersive day. Will try to say something about it.

First, about the crew. At Sean’s meeting Monday night we explained our projects, and all of that is at the 38th Voyage website: http://348c4a677f.nxcli.net/38thvoyage/voyagers/. I wish I’d gotten to know the crew better, though. There’s a list at http://348c4a677f.nxcli.net/38thvoyage/captain-and-crew/, but it doesn’t include very many of the people on our voyage. I particularly noticed Dana Mancinelli, Jen Dexter, and Joee Patterson. I chatted with Matt Power, who played Ahab in the “Moby-Dick in Minutes” during the Whaling History Symposium and was on board as a deck hand, and I noted the Stowaway, Ryan Leighton (later he interviewed me) and another Ryan, who reminded me a little of my nautical nephew Andrew but even stronger, pulling on every line, and Tim, the light one who flew into the rigging and went aloft in the bosun’s chair. But as we all reflected later, we didn’t talk much with the crew, and that was too bad. They had a great deal of work to do and were tired, perhaps, of being photographed constantly as they ranged through the rigging like bees. In the circle, though, when we met on the first evening, they spoke very simply and straightforwardly of their work, and Sean had to draw out the fact that most had college degrees, had sailed in challenging ships, and knew a lot about the Morgan.

I felt nervous explaining my project—never know if it communicates in a sentence or two, but I said I was interested in nonverbal information, what can by carried by wind and weather, and in how I can convey the excitement of that to students used to digital technology. Sean Bercaw and I chatted a little more about it yesterday morning—he has a lifetime of experience in education, as well as sailing. Before we set sail I saw him carrying one of his bottles with a message in it. He’s been casting them off every time the ship casts off, and I was reminded of his wonderful narrative about this practice that he’s been observing since he was a child sailing around the world with his family. There’s an NPR story about it: http://www.npr.org/2012/10/09/162578521/casting-hopes-and-dreams-to-sea-in-a-bottle and http://vimeo.com/40266740.

But back to the crew: I watched and admired them all day, and they were the focus, I would say, of my experience, captured in photos and eventually, as I got the hang of my cellphone, videos. From the early morning all through the day, they were ready at any command, strong, disciplined, agile, determined, and so excited to see what the Morgan could do. It was a great day for the Morgan, because they set most of the sails and tacked. Mike Bancroft, the naval architect, described the nautical achievements of the day in his email: “we did have a great untethered sail, wore ship, tacked (which I have never done before on a square rigger) and actually was headed out to sea from New Bedford under sail.  Flew everything but royals and mizzen topsail.  Great time was had by all and the ship sails and responds much better than I imagined.” Amazing feats in the rigging, as Melville would say, and the photos have to tell the story.

We had to get off the ship at about 6:00 am so the crew could prepare, and I wandered the pier a little. Talked with people in whaleboats practicing their rowing. Ran into Mike Dyer, whom I was happy to see. He stood on the pier nobly reading the 550 names of sailors who served on the Morgan, keeping up his reading as we were tugged out of the harbor.

They let us back on at 6:30, by which time the guests had arrived. One was a state senator, and he apparently got a ride from his girlfriend, still attired in a party dress, with sparkly bodice and tulip skirt, covered with a long green cardigan. I only mention it because the night before, while we were wrapping up our get-to-know-you meeting, we had a visit from Miss New Bedford, wearing a tiara and being photographed aboard the Morgan. I wondered if we were going to be receiving sparkling women all day, but no.

We pulled away at 7:30 am, and hence ensued over five hours of sail work, as I mentioned above. The Voyagers collected around the try pots, a good spot to stand a little above the deck and get a good view of the bay (we were eventually sailing through the Cape Cod Canal), the sails, and the deck. Hester Blum pulled on a line with the crew, and not long after that Sean thrust me into another group raising a sail. I pulled as hard as I could, grunting and heaving with all I could muster, and of course I felt like a lubber and was relieved not to have completely messed up (that came later, when I pulled for a second time and seemed to impede the efforts of the crew—I was pulling out instead of down, I think—and Sean gently drew me aside to let them finish properly. I was grateful for the intervention!).  Orders passed like 19th-c vital electric fluids along the deck from Sam Sikkema, chief mate, posted in the bow, to Sean, the second mate amidships, to the sailors, who hopped into a crew or into the rigging at the first breath of a command. Saw less of Captain Kip Files, who ran around a bit with a walkie-talkie but otherwise seemed to stay below, appearing at the end of the leg to join us for the group photo and hug the Voyagers enthusiastically.

At about 8 they served a fabulous breakfast below—scrambled eggs and bacon, strata with red peppers, fresh fruit, pastries, as well as yoghurts and cereal and coffee going all day.  I inhaled it all.  Then I participated in the hourly sightings and measurings—checked the waves to estimate knots and wind force (three and four, I figured), checked cloud cover, collected sea water to analyze salinity and levels of plankton, noted temperature and humidity. Used contemporary instruments for all of this.

I also talked with Voyagers and crew. Asked Dana Lucinelli, for example, one of the deck hands, what she’d meant the evening before by saying that the ship was awkwardly rigged by contemporary standards. She showed me how some blocks were wooden, others metal, how the lines were not all consistently rigged, how some impeded the movements of the sail. They’d used the rigging plan from 1905, not 1851, so it included a number of anomalies. In spite of that, as Mike Bancroft said in his email and asserted to me, the ship sailed very well. I asked him what engineers might be interested in, when it came to nautical engineering, and he said speed and efficiency. But then, he added, they also want to escape, so they’d be interested in the ship’s escape value. I pondered that one. He also mentioned that contemporary ships have changed sails and brought in new technology and materials—Mylar, Kevlar, and other synthetics—and that the old materials (Egyptian cotton and flax, like Brooks Brothers shirts) were awkward and heavy. But so beautiful! I talked with Ger Tysk about Manjiro and her research and mentioned Hayato Sakurai, who had spoken about Manjiro at the Whaling Historical Symposium. I talked at some length with Ed Baker, from New London. He had a lot to say about the coastline and various historical matters about whaling. I watched Courtney Leonard take pictures—didn’t want to disturb what looked like profoundly meditative work. I talked with Michelle Moon about the deckhands, since she worked in a squad at Mystic some years ago and knew the ship well.

At some point in the late morning, I saw the stowaway, Ryan, begin to interview Voyagers, and he got to me at around 11. I had my copy of Melville’s poems edited by Doug Robillard, and I read the first stanza of “Pebbles,” con spirito.  Said I was eager to bring back to the classroom some of what I’d seen and felt for the day and was aware of sounding just like everyone else—awestruck and dazed, unable to articulate the experience, massively affected and wordless. So it was good that I had Melville’s words on hand. I had asked Cristina Baptista, who is writing about Portuguese sailors, about “pintado,” one of the birds Melville pairs with “gannet,” and she said it means “painted.” Sean said he knew gannets (like cormorants, and we saw some in Buzzards Bay), but didn’t know anything about the pintado. It’s a Cape petrel, apparently, but the etymology might tell more.  I also asked Sean about “flaw,” the last word in the poem. Hester had noticed it—an echo of “flew” in relation to the birds, and we also remembered Carolyn Karcher noting the flaw in “Benito Cereno” and “The Bell-Tower”—but Sean didn’t recognize it as a contemporary nautical term (for gust or squall), and he referred me to his sister!

Captain Kip Files had made an early start to avoid the “slack” in the tides that occurs in the Cape Cod Channel because of the strong currents, so we knew our voyage would be short, and I tried to make the most of every moment, with that in mind. In fact, I couldn’t have done otherwise, since I found I had no volition of my own. Could not write, could not think. Just had to be in the moment, an odd and ideal state, and one that doesn’t happen very often. As a result, I was barely conscious of the time passing and the day disappearing, though it was very sad to see Buzzards Bay and Mass Maritime dimly and then ever more clearly in the distance.

The captain said we’d dock and let the guests go ashore, then let the Voyagers eat lunch and climb into the rigging so they’d have a longer day. Bex, Ger, and Hester led the way into the rigging and exulted when they reached the futtocks. Watched, then went below and packed my bags, got my lunch, and went back up on deck to eat—sandwich wraps, fruit, broccoli slaw, and a small slice of cheesecake. All delicious. Michelle called us together to debrief a little, and we shared our thoughts from the day. I didn’t get all of the details, but we agreed that we wished there had been more time to talk and interact with the crew—but they’re busy the whole time at sea, so that’s hard. I said it was good to be reminded of what I don’t know and what it’s like to be a novice and student. I’m not sure what the other reflections were, but Michelle will capture them with her survey, and I expect we’ll be sharing our thoughts in many venues and at great length in the future. We dispersed quietly after that, and Courtney took one last picture of me in front of the ship.

Am expecting to incorporate some of this into a proposal for my fall semester class, “Mapping Melville,” in which I will be working with geo-mapping but also thinking about voyages. Would like to collect my best photos and videos into a presentation and draw on the Mystic archive from the voyage for materials my students would enjoy. I’m also seeing connections between the way the crew works and the way a classroom does to “read” and make sense of changes in the environment. So my original idea about information systems has been if anything strengthened by observing the deck hands operating in an information system mediated through wind, hemp, canvas, and human bodies. Although my focus in the next stage of the project will be on pedagogy, I will continue to reflect on the meaning of the voyage to me personally and as a reader of Melville’s works.

In that connection: never in a million years, or in the relatively brief time (decades?) I’ve been reading Melville’s books did I think I’d have an opportunity to journey on a nineteenth-century whaling ship!—to pace a deck like what Melville or Ishmael or Stubb or Pip might have known, breathe sea air, and imagine setting sail for the other side of the world. There was no gainsaying, in our voyage, the hardship and soul-sickening violence the sailors once suffered, and if the voyage took us back to the historical past, it did not encourage mindless nostalgia. I know that the world of the Morgan and of the Acushnet and of Moby-Dick, all were full of “the horrors of the half-known life.”  But if I can convey to my students the least part of the exhilaration and wonder of that experience too, the journey will not stop with me. I am profoundly grateful to the Mystic Seaport and all those who made the voyage possible. It has been an unforgettable experience for a global community of lovers of the sea, whales, and the culture of whaling.