“Everyone knows what a multitude of things—beds, saucepans, knives and forks, shovels and tongs, napkins, nut-crackers, and what not, are indispensable to the business of housekeeping. Just so with whaling, which necessitates a three-years’ housekeeping upon the wide ocean, far from all grocers, costermongers, doctors, bakers, and bankers. And though this also holds true of merchant vessels, yet not by any means to the same extent as with whalemen. For besides the great length of the whaling voyage, the numerous articles peculiar to the prosecution of the fishery, and the impossibility of replacing them at the remote harbors usually frequented, it must be remembered, that of all ships, whaling vessels are the most exposed to accidents of all kinds, and especially to the destruction and loss of the very things upon which the success of the voyage most depends. Hence, the spare boats, spare spars, and spare lines and harpoons, and spare everythings, almost, but a spare Captain and a duplicate ship.”
~ Herman Melville,1851, Moby Dick
I was prepared for Obadiah to make a scene about my hair, but in retrospect that was a self-centered thought. He had much bigger things on his mind than a willful wife’s coiffure. As it was, I wasn’t sure whether to feel relieved or hurt by his bark of laughter—but either way I preferred it to the storm I’d been expecting. He reverted to his “captain face” before I’d even gotten over the rail, gesturing to a sailor I hadn’t yet met to bring up my two trunks.’
The deck was a bustling scene of men coming and going, gathering and stowing. Seamen’s chests disappeared into the living quarters in the fo’c’sle, and I tried to make out faces I knew among the crew. To my surprise, the first face I recognized did not belong to a person I had met here, but to the cook whom I’d first encountered in the harbormaster’s office in New York. Samson, I remembered. I also remembered young Billy rattling on in that office about the sea captain I was traveling to marry—and the seaman’s near-hostile curiosity that I knew his vessel’s destination—and hoped I wouldn’t have any trouble with this one.
Ingersoll the steward I had met when I (somewhat reluctantly) turned over the provisioning lists with all their checkmarks, notes, and margin sketches. I’d become attached to the satisfying project of readying the ship, and fascinated by the complexities of planning ahead for several years of “housekeeping” and hunting.
And Holokai had introduced me (with a proprietary air, as if I were more his “cousin” than any of theirs) to the Pacific Islanders among the crew. Literally a boatload of them, enough to man an entire whaleboat, which I didn’t think was the usual proportion. Remembering Obadiah’s comment that he’d signed seamen who would sail with me—and remembering the lack of superstition regarding women among the Islanders I’d interviewed—I suspected I knew why. Well, this lot would have their own superstitions. I wondered if Tutu Ma’s prohibition against sweeping-at-night would apply to swabbing decks. Not that it should matter, given that the task would be undertaken during daylight hours.
I knew there were fewer than thirty people altogether, but the bustling deck full of unfamiliar faces made them seem like more. I stood behind the helm on the quarterdeck, keeping myself out of the way and taking in all the activity. Obadiah himself stood at the helm with the pilot, who would take himself off in a tender once he got us out of the harbor.
It still awed me to watch a ship pull away from a pier without the push or direction of an engine, influenced only by the tide, the wheel, and the machination of the sails. Obedience moved slowly away from the wharf and I gravitated to the shoreside rail without realizing it. Sure, we would put ashore in various places along our route—but for day-to-day living this deck and this ship had just become my world. I kept my face carefully neutral, determined that Obadiah wouldn’t detect any apprehension with the frequent glances he kept stealing in my direction.
In actual fact, my unease stemmed from the realization that I didn’t know what to do with myself next. I hadn’t yet carved out a place for myself among the many working parts of the machine that was this ship.
I let my hips and knees flex with the movement of the ship, occasionally having to take a small side-step when an unexpected toss interrupted the more regular rhythm. I wanted to look sure-footed and unconcerned, and took heart from the fact that even the salts made adjustments as they hurried around the deck.
Obadiah stood at the helm, and I had the impression he wasn’t paying much attention to the officious little pilot at his elbow. Mostly I got that impression from the officious little man himself, who radiated indignant offense. We cleared the port, dropped the pilot over the side into the waiting boat, and beat out to sea—every maneuver of the ship accomplished by much activity aloft and on the deck, none of it causing the captain any visible perturbation.
The mates hadn’t yet learned men’s names any more than I had, so they tagged sailors by appearance as they called out commands. The rigging rang with hollers of “You, Swede!” “Red Kerchief!” “Curls!” and the like, as Rawley and Franklin kept order in the apparent chaos.
What one watch (or half the men) might usually accomplish with alacrity took some time and bumbling even with the full crew, new as they were to one another, and some of them entirely “green” hands, new to ships altogether.
It wasn’t until we fixed a course with the wind across the starboard quarter that all the men assembled on the deck for what I gathered was the expected address from their captain. Obadiah stood with his hands on his hips, scanning the faces of his twenty-four sailors with one of those silences he tended to use to such unnerving effect. I imagined him speaking like Yoda or Galadriel into the mind of each individual sailor, and I thought I could pick out the green hands by their nerves, even if I hadn’t just seen a display of who did (and didn’t) possess the skills and knowledge of seasoned sailors.
“Men. We embark on this venture with a full company of able-bodied seamen, our holds full of food and our tools and weapons burnished to a shine. When we return to this place some years from now, we will be weathered and beaten and patched, wiser, stronger, abler—and God willing, richer.” (A small cheer arose at that and quickly died.) “Our holds will be brimming with whale oil—have no doubt, for we will not return until it is so—and our hardware will be hard used. We may have fewer faces gathered here, or new ones from foreign ports. But whatever befalls this company, the caulking that holds this crew together must hold fast. Each of you is a plank of our boat—and I am the helm and the rudder. If a plank springs free from its fellows, it must needs be hammered back into its place lest the whole boat ship water and sink. Never doubt that the man at your helm swings a mighty hammer in defense of his craft.”
If I’d been waiting for a “carrot” section of the speech to balance the “stick,” it soon became apparent that none was forthcoming. Apparently this is what passes for a teamwork pep-talk in the whale fishery.
After another of his searching silences, Obadiah nodded as if satisfied that his warning had been received, and began dividing the men into starboard and larboard watches, headed respectively by the first and second mate. Third mate Dickson apparently didn’t rate command of a watch, only command of a whaleboat when the time came for it. I thought him at a disadvantage in that role, given that the men of his boat divided between the two watches—they wouldn’t be working together, and they wouldn’t be in the habit of taking commands from him. (Nor he in the habit of giving commands.) Rawley had his harpooner and boatmen (the full complement of Pacific Islanders) assigned to his watch, and Franklin the same with his more motley mix of sailors. The cook, steward, smith, and carpenter—expected to work all day at their respective crafts—were exempted from the watch schedule, and would stay aboard to serve as the ship’s “keepers” when the whaleboats lowered..
The rhythm of ship-time… Life for these men would now be divided into the four-hour increments of their watches, measured by increasing numbers of bells rung every half-hour, eight bells to mark each watch’s end. Except for the dog watches in the evening, when the two groups traded after two hours instead of four, switching up which set of men would stand which watches for the next day.
Dinner was served early in the dog watches, appearing above the staggering legs of the cabin boy Jimmy, all twelve or thirteen years of him. Just out of port, we could enjoy a few days of fresh foods before we reverted to regular sea rations. Ordinarily the officers would be served separately, but today the cook and steward were still setting things to rights and stowing supplies, and we ate what the men ate. No hardship, given that tonight’s leavened bread, unsalted beef, and undried apples would be rare fare even for the captain’s table later in the voyage.
Having been involved in the earlier stages of provisioning, I thought to offer my help to Ingersoll and Samson as they set up housekeeping, but found myself gruffly rebuffed by the cook. “I not be needin’ no woman-help in my galley,” he told me dismissively, and I retreated feeling embarrassed. If he thought I’d be a threat to the sovereignty of his kitchen, he’d maybe be reassured by the fact that I don’t even cook—but I didn’t offer any arguments. I retreated instead to the quarterdeck, and resorted to the fallback of my sketchbook, outlining the faces of the men as I remembered them attending to Obadiah’s brief speech, and putting names to such faces as I could.
Three bells rang—an hour and a half into the dog watch—and Obadiah spoke from above me where I sat cross-legged on the deck, sketching with my back against the cabin wall. “We shall have to set you a seat here, Mrs. Starbuck, if you intend to sit here and chronicle our voyage.” I hadn’t seen him turn over the helm to “Red Kerchief,” and I hadn’t yet accustomed myself to his habit of addressing me formally in the presence of other people.
“That would be greatly appreciated, Mr. Starbuck.” I couldn’t address him so with an entirely straight face, but I gave it an attempt, pushing myself back to my feet.
“It would certainly be more decorous,” he responded disapprovingly. I hoped he wasn’t about to broach the subject of breeches, because I didn’t want to argue in front of one of his sailors, any more than I intended to revert to skirts. He didn’t bring it up in that moment, but gave me a silent up-and-down look that left no doubt what he was thinking. That’s okay—I figured “life aboard” would make my case for me, given a little time.
Leaning my book against the cabin wall and pocketing my pen, I resisted (yet again) the urge to raise a hand to my unaccustomed haircut, and tucked it through his arm instead. “Will you show me sometime how to use that new sextant of yours?”