Peter Whittemore: A Top-Gallant Salute. The 38th Voyage of the Charles W. Morgan

A top-gallant salute to the Port of New Bedford, Mayor Mitchell, to the Captain, crew, craftsmen and staff of Mystic Seaport, and to anyone who has ever dreamt of the one of a kind voyage we have just been privileged to experience sailing on the Charles W. Morgan whaleship from Vineyard Haven back home to New Bedford Harbor.

I am the great-great-grandson of Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick. He left this port, which in the 1840s was the richest city in the world, on the whale-ship Acushnet like many a young man, going out to find work in the energy sector, as they do today in the shale oil fields of the Dakotas. It has been the thrill of a lifetime to be among the crew sailing into this port, blood coursing in our veins like the singing of the rigging, with the joy of the creation filling our souls like the wind in the sails. We did not catch sight of the great White Whale, but believe me, he’s still out there.

Melville sailed in 1841, just four months before the Charles W. Morgan was launched. One might say the Acushnet of New Bedford launched the novel Moby Dick and the Morgan has given me an opportunity to return the story to its source on a “sister” ship. I left New Bedford Tuesday evening on the SeaStreak, going to Martha’s Vineyard at twenty-six knots and returned the next day, some 173 years earlier, so to speak, at an exhilarating six knots under eight square sails. There were many descendants of former captains, crew, and owners aboard and we all agreed the ancestors were smiling down on us all the way into port.

Melville Imaginings

What would Melville have thought and felt on this 2014 38th voyage? Like a stone skipping across Buzzards Bay, I can only touch down on a few observations.

I was a greenhorn on that Morgan leg as was Melville setting off on the Acushnet in the winter of 1841. The eels-nest of lines, sheets, and halyards on the deck, the constant call and response of orders from the captain and crew, I’m sure were just as foreign, intimidating; but the boat gets smaller as the ocean opens up ahead out of harbor, and the hull gets as solid as a mountain underfoot. As all the sails were unfurled from their yardarms and clouds of canvas loomed overhead, the boat took on its own power in the same rush of adrenaline that Melville must have felt. When we broke through Quick’s Hole in the Elizabethan Islands on a broad reach, we were ahead of time, so the captain decided to let the boat go with the wind for a spell. We tacked around Buzzard’s Bay, port, starboard, even managed a wear, or jibe. The Morgan was like a six-month-old puppy dog chasing a ball in the yard with the captain tossing it out ahead.

Yes, I and all the Melville scholars and fans aboard that Vineyard Haven to New Bedford leg of the 38th Voyage could well imagine the author himself standing at the rigging with us, coming into the hurricane barrier at the entrance to New Bedford Harbor. I didn’t get to the top of the mast as he did, but I felt the lure of the sea’s trance-like pull as he described in chapter 35, “The Mast Head.”

Let me make a clean breast of it here, and frankly admit that I kept but sorry guard. With the problem of the universe revolving in me, how could I—being left completely to myself at such a thought-engendering altitude, how could I but lightly hold my obligations to observe all whale-ships’ standing orders, “Keep your weather eye open and sing out every time.” ….There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship: by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise forever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!”

The Spirit of the Charles W. Morgan

We Voyagers have debated whether the boat with only thirty percent, or even ten percent of the original wood is still “The Charles W. Morgan” of 1841. My hockey-playing friend and I used to argue in high school whether if I had Bobby Hull’s brain transplanted into my body would I get the slap-shot of the star player. Well, we and Melville, had he been there that day in Buzzard’s Bay, would agree that the ship’s 1841 whale-chasing spirit came roaring up through the timbers, decks and spars like she was pushing dolphins aside for the hunt. Even the Captain Files, un-Ahab-like, was grinning and wide-eyed with amazement. His Starbuck and Flask, Sam and Rocky, and the crew of Sean and Mary K and Cassie and all were transfixed as if staring at the Doubloon, of chapter 36, “The Quarter Deck”, nailed in the mast, or at that “Spirit-spout” of chapter 51:  “… somehow seeming at every distinct repetition to be advancing still further and further in our van, this solitary jet seemed forever alluring us on.”

While tacking about, as I glanced back at the helm, there was old man Howland, multi-generational descendant of owners, captains and portraits in museums—an iron grip at the wheel, squat stance, and sturdy as the ship itself. He was Bulkington, the mystery hero of only two early chapters in Moby Dick, especially “The Lee Shore,” chapter 23:

When on that shivering winter’s night, the Pequod thrust her vindictive bows into the cold, malicious waves, who should I see standing at her helm but Bulkington! … Take heart, take heart, O Bulkington! Bear thee grimly, demigod! Up from the spray of thy ocean-perishing—straight up, leaps thy apotheosis!

Down below decks one might wonder about the authenticity of generator-powered safety lights that kept us from banging our heads and kept the Coast Guard safety regulations for passenger ships fulfilled. But in chapter 97 of Moby Dick, Melville laughs at the amount of light in the Pequod’s crew quarters:

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.”

A Warning for 21st-century Coal

Just this Monday night, July 6, the Commonwealth Journal radio show from UMass’s WUMB [station] had on the Mullin Family. Rick, a fourth-generation underground coalminer from West Virginia, [and] his wife and two boys are traveling the country, educating people on the dangers and damage done by modern mountain-top removal coal mining. He happened to recount his stop at New Bedford recently where they went to the Seamen’s Bethel. In the basement there he watched a historical documentary of New Bedford called “The City That Lit the World,” and remarked that the coal industry spokespeople this year are using the slogan: “We keep the lights on.” He warned that what happened to New Bedford when the whaling fervor died, is what’s going to happen in the Appalachians when the land is stripped bare. Modern mountain-top removal coal mining methods are to coal mining and the environment what the 1900’s factory whale-ship with its cannon-fired exploding harpoons was to the whale industry and the sea environment. May the Mullins and the Charles W. Morgan serve as a warning, as Melville also intended with Moby Dick, a warning to the excesses and unheeded call from the environment for humanity to have more foresight and take more care.

A Wakeup Call

Historians say oil was first exploited by Alexander the Great as [a] weapon, an ancient napalm, if you can imagine. Coal certainly fired steamship engines for war flotillas. Even our space program began with missiles for weapons before we really began to value the research capacities. One may wonder, “Can a whale-killing ship like the Morgan do the same?  Can we let this 38th Voyage serve as a wakeup call to address the abuse of fish species and ocean resources? Can this Voyage in 2014 make up for so much damage done to date? While the peacetime use of the military, that once built the interstate highway system we all rely on, now  seems to not respond to New Orleans’ plight or the refitting of the infrastructure it built, and while the Space Shuttle program and NASA’s budget founders, and the energy industry drills on to apparent oblivion, thanks to all for the Mystic Seaport Museum and the magnificent rejuvenation of the Charles W. Morgan, so we might see that the American enterprise can be redirected to look forward, not as a museum piece, but as a ship’s bell in the fog, a warning call to rebuild our purpose with not tonight’s profits in mind but [with] the seventh generation to come.

Moby Dick Lives!

Moby Dick sold 800 copies in Melville’s lifetime, and was so panned by the critics of the day that the copyright ran out never to be renewed. So, please, all of you from high school kids to ancient mariners who read Melville’s epic and who should be grateful for such open-source adventure and wisdom, read it twice at least and read it in your later years when the depth of the ocean and the depth of your soul [are] so much richer.

Oh Lord, this madness and thy mysteries are so great and my brain is so small. Give me the words of my ancestors that I might make us all see that Melville’s novel Moby Dick walks these docks as we speak, day and night, walks the cobblestone streets of New Bedford and Nantucket, and walks the halls of Wall Street and the corridors of Congress, calling us like Elijah the Prophet and Ishmael the Beholder, and Father Mapple in his sermon on Jonah, calling us to speak the truth to falsity. We need not speak the truth to power because truth is the ultimate power, but we must speak the truth to falsity as we see the oceans fill with plastic and pollution, as we see whale fishing continue beyond any reason, and as we witness industrial enterprise crushing the American soul once so joyous in its freedoms. Moby Dick still plies these waters calling us to wake up and smell the seaweed, breathe in the beauty, and to step up and act to sustain our Earth.

Thank you Mystic Seaport, crew of the Charles W. Morgan and to those who love the sea and the life it has given us all. Thanks for showing us that we can rebuild and rededicate ourselves to a revival of the American spirit in view of a sustainable future for the seas that continue to feed the world.