Monday, May 23, 2011

Awhaling inspiration

Sea shanties were shipboard working songs from the days when sailors used the rhythms to synchronize movements and to while away time on long voyages. "Off to Sea Once More" performed by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman has become a personal favorite of late- background music to my reading of In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick. This is the story that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. When I think I know a story, I procrastinate; do not tarry as I have.

This is an epic disaster story, balanced by historical research and background details, that presents a fuller picture of life at sea in a whaleship from Nantucket Island in 1821. Understanding Nantucket society of the era with its closed knit community where every degree of difference sets one apart: being a Quaker or not, being born on island or off, being black or white- impacts shipboard life and ultimately survival when the Essex sinks. Whaleship voyages were two to three years in the making, leaving the women and fatherless children behind to run the business of island life. As a Navy wife, I can relate.

Whaling was a gory business. Six whalers set out in row boats with a harpoon to kill a whale; the whales dragged the boats and thus the men along for a ride on the open ocean while being stabbed with a lance until death arrived. Obtaining oil from a sixty ton sperm whale involved cutting it into workable sections with blood, guts and oil coating every surface and crevice of ship and sailor. Discarded whale carcasses were left floating in open waters. The oil was collected into barrels and it was when these barrels filled the ship that the voyage would come to an end. The sailors were paid at the end of the voyage to insure they did not desert. A-whaling was dangerous and difficult work, but money was a mighty motivator. The quest for oil does not seem to bring out the best of humanity.

I keep mulling over the story because of the unique tragedies and triumphs experienced by the Essex crew. Their ship is attacked by a sperm whale and sinks while most of the crew including the captain are on the open ocean hunting- they look up to see their ship sinking thousands of miles from any known shore. Fearful of cannibals, they set out on a difficult journey, fighting wind and currents, to return to the known South American coast; a decision that results in the loss of lives and in their own cannibalism. It is a grim and gripping read. The cannibal island they were trying to avoid was the unknown Hawaiian Islands which is the very place I started reading the story. If they had made for Hawaii or even Tahiti, they might have all lived and the story would not haunt my psyche. Philbrick's research on successful command leadership styles, controlled experiments with a starvation diet, sperm whale habits, and historical knowledge at the time from nautical equipment to maps, brings depth and understanding to this tragedy. Sea traditions did include drawing lots for a victim to eat and for a victim to kill the victim. It is a gruesome moment to realize you have come to that.

I have read other twentieth century accounts of sea survival- all of them set in the Pacific, which covers nearly a third of the total surface area of the earth. Those survivors, such as Pim, Zamperini, and a couple in the 1980s, included details about fishing. There were few attempts at fishing done in this tale because of where they were- the Desolate Region- a place of little life as this crew was set on avoiding cannibals and not on finding landfall.

The triumph of this story is that some of them returned home and to other ships. The captain was known for disappearing every year on the anniversary of the sinking of the Essex to pray and remember, but, otherwise, he was able to live with all that happened in a way that was meaningful. As the town nightwatchman, he cared for the many fatherless children on Nantucket Island and by all accounts seemed a kind and giving man; tragedy did not define his life. Now, I must read Moby Dick, but until then, I will be humming this traditional tune:

"Off To Sea Once More"
When first I came to Liverpool
I went upon a spree
Me money alas I spent too fast
Got drunk as drunk could be
And when my money was all gone
'Twas then I wanted more
But a man must be blind to make up his mind
To go to sea once more

I spent the night with Angeline
Too drunk to roll in bed
My watch was new and my money too
In the mornin' with 'em she fled
And as I roamed the streets about
The whores they all would roar
Here comes Jack Rack, the young sailin' lad
He must go to sea once more

As I was walkin' down the street
I met with Rapper Brown
I asked for him to take me in
And he looked at me with a frown
He said "Last time you was paid off
With me you jobbed no score
But I'll take your advance and I'll give ya's a chance
And I'll send you to sea once more

I hired me aboard of a whaling ship
Bound for the Artic seas
Where the cold winds blow through the frost and the snow
And Jamaican rum would freeze
And worst and bear I'd no hard weather gear
For I'd lost all my money ashore
'Twas then that I wished that I was dead
So I'd gone to sea no more

Some days we're catching whales me lads
And some days we're catching none
With a twenty foot oar cocked in our hands
From four o'clock in the morn
And when the shades of night come in
We rest on our weary oar
'Twas then I wished that I was dead
Or safe with the girls ashore

Come all you bold seafarin' men
And listen to my song
If you come off of them long trips
I'd have ya's not go wrong
Take my advice, drink no strong drink
Don't go sleeping with no whores
Get married lads and have all night in
So you'll go to sea no more