Captain Kip Files

I wanted to get to know the workers on board the Morgan because, as a biographer, I need to gain some sense of Melville’s work environment. But this “sense” I hope to achieve is a far cry from the reality Melville experienced, and my own 21st-century experiences on the Morgan can only be a faint simulation of what he experienced in 1841.  So I must keep in mind that for one day only I am only imagining what another man’s life only might have been.  That’s a lot of “only,” and perhaps all I can do in writing a biography is measure the distance between my present and Melville’s past.  Still, one boundary these two spheres share is our common humanity; if only I might isolate, for one day, one or two of these shared humanities.

I had witnessed the work on board the Morgan: the running to stations, the pulling and heaving, the call and repeat, the unity of body and action.  Now I wanted to know the workers, from the youngest on board to captain, as individuals: what they thought and felt.  Maybe here would be the connection.  I had little time for extensive interviewing, and no illusion that in less than a day I could really “get to know” anyone, much less a group of workers busy at work.  Often my interviewees stopped their responses in mid-sentence with a polite “I gotta go” when first mate Sam or second mate Sean yelled out a command. So I developed a concise two-question approach that I hoped would allow me sufficient entrè into the varied lives of the crew:  How did you get into this profession? What is your biggest fear?

Of course, the two questions were a mirror of myself: who am I and why do I fear death? But I also had Melville in mind and, in particular, his brilliant (lesser known) novel Redburn, an autobiographical fiction based on his adolescence that is therefore an important though problematic source for any biographer.  In Ch. 16, Redburn is made to climb aloft to the highest yard in the dark of night to release the gaskets that tie up the highest smallest sky-sail. Standing on the skysail yard, Redburn reflects:

For a few moments I stood awe-stricken and mute. I could not see far out upon the ocean, owing to the darkness of the night; and from my lofty perch, the sea looked like a great, black gulf, hemmed in, all round, by beetling black cliffs. I seemed all alone; treading the midnight clouds; and every second, expected to find myself falling—falling—falling, as I have felt when the nightmare has been on me.

I have always related to this passage: the darkness, muteness, and falling.  I have a healthy respect for heights.  I like to hold tight to railings.  When I’m on a balcony, I imagine myself pitching over and have to shake off this “imp of the perverse” death-wish (as Poe might call it).  Three years ago, I witnessed a person throw herself off a five-story parking structure in San Diego: I saw her fall; I heard the slap-crack as her body hit the pavement like lumber, and I must shake off this image, night or day, whenever it invades my mind.

On board the Morgan, I had no time to explore the crew’s fears in such detail, and I knew that even in asking the question, I risked unconsciously coaxing them in their response toward my agenda of exploring Melville’s self-doubting expressions of fear rather letting them express their own authentic being.  But, I reasoned, if the present crew is a sphere completely separate from the sphere of Melville’s past, one common link between then and now is this form of our shared humanity.  Fear is trans-historical, and my job was to ask and listen to these sailors not listen to myself.

One respondent, the youngest of the professional crew with three years experience under sail on tall ships, was utterly unresponsive even to my first question: how did you get started working at sea?  He gave only laconic, single word utterances, and I never got to my second question: it seemed fruitless to attempt it. I left him to his solitude, which I deeply respect.

Others were more open in relating their life histories: they had been on a boat of some sort since the age of four, ten, twelve, clocking from ten to twenty years working summers or full time on ships powered by engines or wind.  I did not ask them if they loved the sea, if it had some pull on them, or metaphysical depth.  Their eyes were on the deck and the rigging and not on the horizon.  One had been at it long enough, he said, and he was set to quit in a year or so and return to college, get a degree, and make some money. For many, this sea life is a transition to something else.  Melville, for instance, left the sea and became a writer, which as far as we can tell, is when he began to reflect back on the pull of the sea and its metaphysical depth.

My second question was hard to ask because fear is something people do not readily admit to.  Men are often reticent with regard to this subject, so I fully recognize how the question What is your biggest fear? can be taken as an assault on a man’s manhood. The Fear Question is the opening of an issue that the culture tells men not to address. This mute stoicism is a venerable precept of courage, although, paradoxically perhaps, another precept is that writing about your fears is itself an act of courage, and one Melville manages quite well.  A common enough initial response to the FQ was “spiders.” The humor is that a big guy cringes at a little crawling thing, and we chuckled at this opener, though, any sensible man will tell you spiders are scary.

A second, understandable evasion was to ask whether I meant fear in general or fear at sea.  And I would let that ride: whichever, I would say; start where you want.

I was undeterred in asking this number two question, expecting that when I got people finally to relent they would respond mostly along the lines of Redburn’s fear of falling falling falling.  He relates this to “the nightmare,” which is the common enough anxiety dream of falling that many have experienced.  And why should a young man dream of falling? What anxieties could possibly afflicted a young man? For starters there is failing to succeed, to love and be loved, to be a man, to find a mate.  Falling is a form of failing.  The two seem closer than just one letter apart.  But no one mentioned this.

44CrewWorkingFourRiggingAlthough, one worker after some thought beyond the spider stage of response said, he mostly feared “freezing up” in the rigging.  I thought he meant that his forearms, wrist, and hand might, from all the gripping and holding, cramp and go numb, but no, the fear is being up in the rigging and not knowing whether to climb up or down, slide right or left.  Which line will secure you, which one is loose.  Freezing up is when you cannot tell.  The issue is not falling, but not knowing where to go.

In Redburn, Melville writes that it is not enough for a young sailor “to learn the ropes.”  In fact, that expression, which we take to indicate expertise, really is only the beginning of what a sailor in the rigging must learn, not just the names of the lines but their relation to each other, and one’s relation to the line.  To pass from a boy to a sailor man, Redburn tells us, means becoming “an artist in the rigging.”  This modern sailor knew this truth all too well.  He was as much an artist in the rigging as any of his crew mates, but he also knew that no artist can get lost in his revisions, that even the best artist in the rigging can “freeze up.”  Others listening knew what he meant.

Another long-time sailor spoke of fire in the hold.  A ship is a bit of tinder floating in the sea; it’s all wood and hemp; it is designed to keep water out; fire travels fast below deck.  And this person’s insight birthed another, a fear of being cast on a lifeboat at sea.  I think he was on a roll and might have listed more fears of the sea, but a command went out, and he ran off, repeating the command.

21BlocksAndSheet2An unexpected fear came up in an unrelated conversation with one of the crew’s more experienced members: the snapping of the canvas sails as they billow out.  We assume this sound, like the revving of an engine, signals the beginning of some romantic sea adventure, or at least wind in the sails and forward movement.  But, she cautioned, the force of a flapping sail can break the line that holds it, which means the loose end of the sail with its ropes, block, and tackle can slap you in the face or push you off a spar.  If you hear a snap, you better duck or hold on tight.

Eventually, I worked up nerve to ask my questions to the captain, Kip Files.  It occurs to me now how presumptuous I was in asking the captain what he fears.  Maybe it is not good deck etiquette to ask the person in charge of the very piece of wood that is keeping you afloat in the Atlantic anything that approaches self-doubt, or interior searching.  Frankly, I want my captain courageous.  Unconsciously, I seem to have been re-enacting an embarrassing moment in Redburn when the young man approaches his captain, as if they were gentlemen of equal rank, and he is summarily rebuked for thinking he might pay the captain a social call.  What had I been thinking?  But Captain Files honored my question with respect, though perhaps a quizzical look, as if to say do you really want me to tell you I fear sinking, drowning, falling?  But his diplomatic response was a telling mix of confidence and anxiety: he feared failure, in particular, failing to get the Morgan into Boston on time.  And while I thought at the time that this was a spider-like evasion, I see now a truth embedded in his authentic response: his fear of failing is a version of my fear of failing.

Our “38th Voyager” crew coordinator, Paul O’Pecko grabbed me.  I was on the list to climb the rigging, and I was next. Weather permitting, we were allowed aloft but only up to just under the platform where the shrouds meet the foremast or mainmast.  More experienced sailors climb over this platform or through the “lubber hole” in the platform.  More experienced sailors continue up higher on rope ladders, or out on foot ropes sagging beneath spars, or slide down stays that keep masts secured.  I was not an experienced sailor, but knew I had to do this.

Fellow voyager Jason had just descended and gave me the harness we are required to wear, as do all sailors.  The straps fit tight around your shoulders and up your crotch.  Does that feel comfortable? Dana coyly asked.  Tolerably, I said.  Then the harness is not tight enough, she said.  So I cinched it up to uncomfortable, climbed onto the bulwarks with nothing but the sea moving past me below, and climbed the shrouds with nothing but deck below, following Dana’s instructions always to maintain three points of contact: two hands and one foot; two feet and one hand.  Our harness came with a loose strap ending with a clasp, which we are to use at the top to clip on to a secure line as we look around.

37GoingAloft2As I climb the ever-narrowing wooden rungs of the shroud, I wonder what use this clasp is while I am climbing.  I could fall to the deck, like lumber, as I climbed, the strap and clasp flailing in the descent.  Nor did I pause to look at the horizon; or up to the platform; or down to the deck; only at the whiteness of my knuckles as I muttered, “three points of contact; three points.”

37GoingAloft5Sitting aloft was Chris, who kept me company as I clipped onto to a line he had a liking for.  I had no questions for Chris about his career or his biggest fear.  I could see the bow of the ship as it cut the water and the deck spreading beneath me, and I turned as well to wave to friends below, who looked mighty small.  I am still a respecter of heights.

37GoingAloft3I asked Chris how often the wooden rungs of the shrouds break, and as I descended, I could not help repeat to myself his answer:  “Almost never.”




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.

20SettingStaysail2PullingThere 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.”


The anchor we lifted

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.

44CrewWorkingFourRiggingBut 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.

46CrewWorkingAtMainMast1The 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.

50TugOffBowMuch 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 from51RandySignalsCourseCorrection 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.

52CrewAaronAtHelm0WheelWorksThe 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.

53CrewAaronAtHelm1       55CrewAaronAtHelm3 54CrewAaronAtHelm2 53CrewAaronAtHelm1 58CrewAaronAtHelm6 57CrewAaronAtHelm5

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 71WorkingLinesAwind 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 72WorkingLinesB73WorkingLinesCcall 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.

Morgan Sails Again

The whaling ship Charles W. Morgan, launched in 1841 out of Fairhaven (near the whaling town of New Bedford, MA), was built by the same shipmakers, who less than a year before, had crafted the Acushnet, Melville’s first whaling ship.  The Morgan and Acushnet are essentially sister ships; that is, they have the same shape, size, displacement, and provenance.

In January, 1841, Melville sailed on the Acushnet, and after eighteen months, he had had enough of whaling, or whaling under his despotic captain Valentine Pease.  He jumped ship on Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas, lived on that Pacific island for a month among the islanders, and wrote up his adventures “among cannibals” in his first book, and only best seller, Typee (1846).  Soon after Melville’s initial, meteoric success as a published author, the Acushnet sank.  But sister Morgan has survived and is one of the few among all the many nineteenth-century whaling craft to be preserved.  After having sailed 37 voyages, into the 20th century, it was out of commission for decades but remained seaworthy and has been a docked exhibit at Mystic Seaport Museum since the 1970s.  Like thousands of visitors to Mystic, I and my family have climbed aboard the docked Morgan, wandered above and below deck, and imagined Melville’s life at sea, on a whaling craft like this one.

Recently, enterprising curators, interpreters, and administrators at Mystic Seaport Museum received plentiful and enthusiastic funding to refit the Morgan for the sailing of its “38th Voyage.”  They have assembled a professional crew and developed an itinerary of visits between Mystic and Boston.  At each port during the three-month period of sailing, the Morgan has also been the showcase for various public exhibits and activities related to nineteenth-century whaling.  In addition, eighty “38th Voyagers” were chosen to sail the Morgan, in groups of ten or so, on twenty-four-hour “legs” of the journey: a night in port and a day under sail.  A call went out for applicants to send proposals for projects they would perform if given this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend a day working a whaling craft.  Hundreds of educators, scholars, scientists, historians, journalists, artists, poets, musicians, navigators, seamen and seawomen—experienced and not (i.e. me)—responded with ideas.  I proposed to write this blog, about a landlubber biographer seeking physical contact, for a night and a day, with an environment similar to what Melville experienced on his whaling ship for eighteen months.

Morgan‘s sister-ship Acushnet was not Melville’s first ship.  Up until his nineteenth year, he, like me, and perhaps most of us, had had a merely transportational not professional relation to ships and sailing.  He had ferried, by steam, up and down and across the Hudson and over to Rhode Island.  He had rowed or canoed, I suspect, the occasional sibling, cousin, playmate, and/or girl friend on the occasional pond.  But he had not voyaged into the Atlantic, under sail, until the economic depression of the late 1830s put him aboard the St. Lawrence, a wind-driven “packet” carrying mail, passengers, and cotton to Liverpool and back in the summer of 1839. Heading out, Herman was labelled a greenhorn, or “boy,” as all greenhorns were called, regardless of age. (Melville made this episode in his adolescence the basis for his fourth novel Redburn, a great read.)

So Melville had had significant sailing experience by the age of 21 when he signed aboard the Acushnet and experienced adventures and thoughts that would culminate in a life of writing, in particular Moby-Dick. Of course, nothing he had experienced on the St. Lawrence could prepare him for the peculiar hunt of the whale, its dismemberment and boiling down blubber, and the barreling up of oil.

For myself, nothing but my reading and writing has prepared me for sailing on the Morgan.  I am 64, and as they say, a boy.



Let’s just say I am a 64-year-old Melville scholar and leave it at that.

I’ve read Melville, and taught Melville for forty years, and written about his writing, and, truth told, I am writing a full and I hope readable biography of Melville.  But none of these years of reading and writing has prepared me, exactly, for my next “Melvillean” project.  On July 14, I will be joining a dozen or so fellow humans, known to me only as names and email correspondents, and almost as many crew members to sail on board the Charles W. Morgan, a whaling ship built in 1841, normally docked at Mystic Seaport museum but now recently fitted for its 38th Voyage at sea.  For the first time in my life I will be under sail, on the Atlantic, out of sight of land.

I am a bit frightened.

True, I grew up on the Pacific coast, in San Diego, perched on a sunny cliff at the end of a street called (oddly enough it now seems) Narragansett, and listened to the muted roar of waves as I fell asleep each night: a boy of eight or so.  And true I have sailed on New York’s Lake George, with a neighbor, once or twice; and true, I have canoed on numerous ponds and up numerous streams in the Adirondacks.  And true, too, I once “sailed” from France to Ireland, over night on a massive hotel-like ferry and woke in the middle of the night to see a full moon rising, white disk, straight line horizon, silver streak, framed by a circular porthole. So I can claim some relation to the sea. But true, as well, I have never been under real canvas sails, with masts and spars and “ropes,” on a big sailing craft, out at sea.

But I am about to rectify that on July 14.

I don’t think I have to do this.  And part of me—that part we landlubbers call Reason—tells me that just because I am writing a biography of Melville and just because Melville went whaling does not mean I too must go to sea, for even a night and a day.  “Melville” is a text.  He is a particular set of written words.  That text is what I study, and the life in the text is all the life I need to focus on in writing my biography.

But nobody believes that. I  must get to sea to feel underfoot what Melville first felt when he, too, first went to sea.

I believe that is true, and maybe you believe me, too, when I say it.  But it is not the real reason.  By no means.  I also need to get to sea because its immensity frightens me, and, like you, I have few years left.