The irony of a storm at sea, I found, was the ongoing alert tension contrasted with the underlying sameness. Not calmness—but the wind, water, and wild motion didn’t change appreciably from one moment to the next, a continuing state of chaos. All that underlaid with the tense possibility that a shift or gust at any moment could change everything.
If I thought I’d ride it all out at the rail, that’s because it initially felt to me like a brief event to experience. I hadn’t fully counted on the lasting nature of it.
Sails taken in and lashings double-checked on whaleboats and everything else on deck, the Starboard watch had retreated belowdecks, sailors to the fo’c’sle and harpooners and tradesmen to their quarters in steerage. I stuck it out a little longer—maybe wanting to prove something to myself, though I’m not sure quite what, given that the salts themselves retreated as soon as they weren’t needed. Obadiah nodded at me when I finally headed for the hatch, and I was glad I’d stayed a while.
I was also glad I wasn’t draped over the rail heaving my guts out like two of the green hands. The cast-iron stomach that stood me in such good stead on carnival rides was proving its worth at sea.
Having retreated to our cabin, I toweled off my hair but didn’t change my clothes, unsure whether I might be heading back on deck. I wanted to draw Obadiah at the wheel, strands of hair flying forward in the chasing wind and his face so fixed on things I didn’t see. Instead I found myself staring out the window at the whipped water erasing our wake. What a small mark we make on the world.
Obadiah joined me about an hour later, closely followed by Ingersoll with a very welcome pot of hot coffee. I supposed Samson had retreated from his on-deck cookhouse to the galley belowdecks, and reminded myself that life had to go on, storm or no. Watches would proceed, men had to be fed, and many rhythms of ship life persevered despite the weather. As if for emphasis, eight bells sounded the end of the forenoon watch, signaling noon—and lunch to be served at the captain’s table.
My husband lingered in our cabin with his hands wrapped around the coffee mug, though, letting his “captain face” relax. I thought it was a little like wax melting—a softer, more malleable expression emerging. To my surprise, he reached out and pinched a fold of my partially-dry trousers. “Skirts and petticoats wouldn’t have dried so fast, would they?” he observed. I shook my head. I also wouldn’t have made it aloft, but I wasn’t sure whether that would be a point against or in favor of my trousers-argument, so I kept my peace, and he didn’t say anything more.
Here I was in my first storm at sea, and my mind was occupied with a pair of pants. Go figure.
Lunch was a smaller affair than the usual cabin meal, with Rawley and Dickson on deck in the Starboard watch. In fairer weather the mates would leave their watches in the hands of other sailors while they ate with the captain, but I gathered Obadiah only trusted Rawley’s hand at the helm. We ate alone with Franklin, the two men trading observations and assessments of the new crew.
However little I liked him, I reminded myself that Obadiah trusted him, at least insofar as the ship and crew were concerned. Franklin’s Larboard Watch included his own whaleboat-men: Clarke the harpooner, “Swede” Johanssen, the Nantucketer Walpole, “Red Kerchief” (whose real name no one seemed to have learned), and Campbell the green cooper. He also had half of the divided third whaleboat—Folger the harpooner, and more green hands in Carver and Turnbow, as well as the cabin boy Jimmy.
He spoke contemptuously of the new sailors, but Obadiah seemed more complacent. Truthfully, they’d both seen the conversion of raw, seasick-and-homesick men into full-on salts. Of course, there were probably also cases where the transformation never happened. Dickson didn’t seem disposed to give any of them benefit of the doubt, and he expressed open doubt about the unusual composition of Rawley’s boat and watch.
“I still think the cannibals should be divided out. It’s just odd having a whole heap of heathens rowing together.”
“But they will row together,” I interjected, finding his language as objectionable as his objection. “They speak a common language, they have a sense of community and kinship. I think it’s brilliant to keep them together.” If he’d ever seen a crew of Hawaiian outrigger canoeists shoot across the water, he’d have no doubts either. As a matter of fact, I was eager to see the display—and if anyone were placing bets on the competition among whaleboats, my money would go on the Islanders. And I didn’t mean Nantucketers.
Maybe I was overprotective of my captain’s authority, but I also didn’t like Franklin questioning him openly. Most whalers had the mates pick their own boats in a round-robin resembling gym-class captains choosing their teams—and leaving no doubt who was least desirable—but Obadiah had bypassed the whole demoralizing scene by assigning the boats and watches himself. I don’t think he did it to spare anyone’s feelings, though. I think he wanted to put together the strongest teams rather than having his mates bickering over strong individuals.
Maybe I shouldn’t have dignified Franklin’s criticism with a response—maybe I diffused a moment when Obadiah would have set him down—maybe I shouldn’t butt in until I had a better grasp of shipboard politics… Maybe I was overanalyzing. It’s right up there with list-making among the things I tend to do.
I followed my husband back on deck, wrapped again in my oilskin, and was surprised by lighter skies. The sea was shifting back from grays to blues, and the wind cut less keenly, though it continued to rain in spurts. Soon the men on watch were back aloft to loose the reefs in the lower sails—though without the urgency of the sail-shortening, all hands weren’t called this time. The Starboard watch had taken the brunt of the storm on deck, and the Larboard watch had the easier job of resetting sails in friendlier weather. Well, there would be enough weather to go around over the months to come.
The sextant and chronometer soon made an appearance, and Obadiah set to the calculations of deciding where, exactly, our several hours of storm-powered run had taken us. Running before a storm could take a ship far off course, although this one had been headed in a similarly easterly direction to our own.
Counterintuitive as it seemed, we were heading for Europe—or we would be, as far as the Azore islands, considerably closer to Portugal and Africa than to our starting point. We could take on provisions there and then head southward to the Cape Verde isles, and on around the tip of South America to enter the whaling grounds of the Pacific.
The first mate tracked our latitude and longitude readings in the logbook, but I’m a visual person—I needed the charts to translate those strings of numbers into some idea of our location. I’d pinned a huge North Atlantic chart to the wall of the main cabin and started writing dated dots on it, using Obadiah’s readings. It was my visual version of the logbook, and today I drew in swirls of wind and storm-imagery between the current position and the previous one.
Franklin made a derogatory noise at the sight of me decorating (defacing?) the chart, but I’d bought and brought my own with just such illustrated “journaling” in mind. Right now it tickled my imagination to picture a Pacific Ocean covered with little whale-drawings to mark our successes. I remembered the summer Tutu Ma had redecorated her bathroom when I was little, when she let me draw all over the walls in crayon before she papered them over. That wall, too, had read like a journal of my summer (though it also featured a number of sharks, just because I liked to draw them). I suddenly wondered if I could pick up any paints at any of our stops, and whether Obadiah’s indulgence would extend to muraling in the cabin. He, at least, seemed amused rather than perturbed by my additions to the “official” charts.
“You do know that storm won’t always be there,” he told me teasingly, jabbing at the spot on the map where I had memorialized it as if it were a landmark. “They move, you know.”
“And here I was hoping we could steer clear of it on our next trip across the Atlantic,” I grinned back, wanting to encourage his spark of humor. “And I was going to mark the location of every spout so we’d know where to find the whales when we come back. Just think what an easy trip we’ll have!”
He cocked his head at me. “I’ve got at least four new hands practically crying for their mothers on this ship, and you’re talking about the next voyage. I’d thought the squall might unsettle you. It’s only a taste of what we’ll weather—but it was your first taste.”
“Well… I won’t say it was comfortable. But I’ve got it easier than they do, haven’t I? I could come belowdeck when I wanted to, I could change out of my wet clothes, I could have a hot lunch with my husband. And anyway, I haven’t got a mother to cry for.” I’d meant the last shot to sound humorous, but it sounded plaintive to my own ears. My only connection in this world was the man looking at me.
“You could have come belowdeck—but you didn’t for a long while. You could have changed into dry clothes—but you didn’t. You could have caused a ruckus up in the rigging—yes, I saw you—but you didn’t. You’re a… remarkably adaptable person.” His eyes dropped to my disputed trousers. “Maybe too adaptable. But on the balance, I think I’d better be grateful.”