At 5:15 AM, on July 15, we are all up and on deck. True to maritime procedure, we were divided into watches, larboard and starboard, which meant that if we were actually working on the ship, and for more than just a day, we would keep to our assigned groups, and take on work commands related to our side of the ship. We would be true sea men and women. And, to be sure, the “38th Voyagers” were invited to work with the more experienced crew members—both Mystic’s rotating demonstration crew and the professional crew hired on for the entire voyage—as the occasion arose. That said, each of us had our projects to keep us busy, and I found that I worked less at the ropes than I had anticipated. My chief excitement was that I was assigned the larboard watch, which is the watch that Melville says his alter ego Redburn was assigned to. I would be a “larbolin,” as opposed to a “starbolin,” as workers in a watch were called.
Redburn is a greenhorn, as was Melville, and he is the last of the “larbolins” to be chosen. The “38th Voyage” had a more humane way to divide up the watch. We had numbers on our name tags, and mine was an even number, which designated me as a larbolin, so I did not have to go through the peculiar humiliation of waiting in line to be the last one chosen. I had had enough of that in high school. But suddenly workers at the starboard bow bulwarks were assembling to weigh anchor, and I crossed over to help, not thinking it was work for the starbolins, not me. The sun was barely up, and I had already violated maritime law. And yet Sara, one of the demonstration crew, paid no mind and showed me how to pull the line, one hand over the other hand.
There were eight of us or more pulling, but only when told “heave.” We stopped at the word “Avast.” I could feel the heavy weight of the anchor even on my short section of the line. And when we stopped pulling and held tight, we could tell there was a ton of anchor at the other end. Only when second mate Sean Bercaw had lashed the anchor to the side of the ship were we instructed to “drop the line.”
I had wondered before what the sharpness of a ship’s rope would feel like on my palms. But the line is supple, and though it is not soft, I felt no burn, but there was certainly something sticky there, which I was happy to show others: Jack Tar, I was. Another crew member showed me his pants, spattered with brownish tar, like a Jackson Pollack painting: Yeah, he said, we know tar.
I had come on board thinking I would record the feel of the sea, the stars and darkness at night, the heat of the hold. In fact, it was an overcast night, cool day, calm sea, and foggy morning, and I found nothing unusual to feel or see. But what I learned the moment I climbed out of my bunk and onto the deck is that a ship is a place of work. I had known this intellectually, had read about it a good deal, and had written about it from the perspective of those books and my imagination, but now I could see it happening: and the young man who showed me his tarred hands and Pollock pants was above all a worker.
But the work begins with language. Every line, mast, spar, and sail has an individual name. And the workers need to know them all. Indeed, a ship is nothing if not a glossary. And you would think it would be enough, to begin with, simply to know your glossary. But demo-crew-member Mary K. Bercaw Edwards (also an acclaimed Melville scholar and Mystic Seaport Museum researcher) told me that the words for each line mast spar and sail differ from language to language, and that once the professional crew had been hired—many coming from different ships hailing from different continents and maritime traditions—the first order of business was comparing their glossaries and deciding on which words to use for line mast spar and sail. It’s a sea of words. Something an English prof might appreciate.
The deeper implication I sensed was how the sea is a multicultural nation unto itself. We think of the sea as an immense separator of nations, but it is in fact its own place. I suppose that is obvious, and something, again, I had had some intellectual awareness of in reading about sea literature and culture. But watching workers speak their lingo, and learning that they had agreed to speak it together, gave me an experiential perspective; their work was making their language work, and you could see it happen on deck.
The sea is a place that draws together customs and cultures from all over, puts them into one cosmopolitan “vessel,” makes them come together. Put Palestinians and Israelis in a ship, I say, mix them equally in both watches as larbolins and starbolins, give them food and bunks, jobs, a space to share, a reason to work together. Ah, that would fix the world. But I see I am just channeling Melville too much. Or maybe not enough. True, Melville saw ships as multiculural vessels: the Neversink, the Pequod, the Fidele, the Bellipotent. A place on the sea where humanity mixes. But he also saw obsession, corruption, tyranny, racism, deception, infamy, mutiny, and war on those ships. I need to snap out of this cosmopolitan romancing of work and the sea.
Much of our morning was shrouded in fog, and we could barely make out the tug up ahead that was towing us into open waters. A high pitched mechanical foghorn, up on the mizzenmast, began to sound in the usual woeful measure. Because of the low visibility, professional crewman Aaron at the wheel in the stern could not make out the tug maybe three hundred feet in front of the Morgan‘s bow, which was itself 106 feet away from Aaron. So demo crew member Randy stood at the prow, and with his back to Aaron and facing the tug, he signaled Aaron whenever the ship began to veer a point or two off the line attached to the tug. From my place at the bow I could see the tug ahead and watched Randy’s gestures. Then I headed back to the stern to watch Aaron steer the ship, not by compass or his own eyes, but by Randy’s signal.
The Morgan‘s immense rudder is moved right or left by a beam-like tiller upon which is attached a wheel that winds a line coiled on a stem behind it. The line is threaded through a set of pulleys and is attached to the sides of the ship. When the wheel turns, it pulls the line and moves both wheel and tiller back and forth on the narrow stern deck. Standing starboard of the wheel, Aaron would stare ahead into the fog, and at Randy’s signal, he would change course, not through precise and leisurely adjustment of the wheel with hand and wrist as you might on some pleasure craft, but with his whole body: arm, shoulder, chest, and knees.
Here the entire ship comes down to two men working together, in tandem, as if one person: no language between them, just action.
Other times, the ship seems alive with the “call and repeat” yelling of mate and crew. This litany is by no means the call and response of church. Instead, the mate yells out a command to a watch or anyone or the whole crew, and instantly the right crew members know who is being addressed and repeat back the command. So the mate calls “Stand by the main braces” and the crew members run to the ropes called braces that maneuver the sails into the wind and repeat back while running “Stand by the main braces.” Or when a sail is set to begin with, the mate will call “Sheet home,” and the crew will call back “Sheet home” as they pull on the lines called sheets, secured to the lower corners of the sails. The idea is that if the workers vocalize the work that they must do, they will know what they are doing, and their mate will know they know. And still other times, workers strain together on the lines in unison, without getting ahead of one another or falling behind with a simple “heave.” There is no thought, only word and action. And in all cases, at all stations, everywhere there is rope: lines in the air, and on the deck.
Work, it is said, is noble, but I don’t know what noble means. Labor is hard, focused, intense, perilous, immediate, and on board this ship, many work as one to pull a line in a kind of mutual self-adjusting simultaneity that hints at hope.