04 July 2008

Over ye go, Me Hearty!

"Owen, that does it. You're walking the plank!"



These words were actually said by yours truly, two days before Father's Day, no less.

Every road trip has its highs and lows. For me, one of the highs was our visit to the fascinating town of Mystic, Connecticut. (One of the lows was Owen's behavior that day.)

From the time Julie had offered to rent the RV last Christmas, I had known the theme for this trip would be whaling. I read Moby Dick. I read five books on whaling and 19th-century maritime history. I rented films. I did everything I could to prepare.

That didn't stop Mystic from blowing me away.

The previous night we had camped near Orient Point, Long Island. We caught the 8:00 ferry for a ride across Long Island Sound to London, CT, passing four to five islands along the way, as well as a photogenic array of sailboats and lighthouses. We squeezed the RV through the narrow byway into Mystic, a town of about 45,000 close to the Rhode Island Border.

Outside a used book store the brightly painted sculpture of a sperm whale welcomed us to town. I knew this was going to be a great stop.

We drove to Mystic Seaport, a historic maritime village. They feature a boat yard where wooden ships are carefully wrought in the way they were made when Yankee Clippers were the finest of open-sea technology.

There were exhibitions about rope-making, clam-fishing, and knot-tying. We climbed aboard a Yankee Clipper in time for a guide to tell use how the sailors sang songs to work the ropes--since most sailors were "greenhands" or novices, the first few weeks of any voyage were a chance for the captain to help the crew to "learn the ropes," a saying we still use today. I also learned that a "slacker" was a sailor who didn't pull his fair share of the rope.

The crown jewel of the visit, though was the blacksmith's shop and the Charles W. Morgan, the only whaling ship remaining from an industry that was a backbone of the American economy in the 1850s.

It was in the blacksmith's shop that we came face to prong with the instruments of the whaling trade: the harpoon, the lance, and the cutting spade.

When whalers spotted a whale--"Thar she blows!"--they rowed away from the ship on whaleboats. The harpooner, at the front of the boat, got close enough to the whale for a solid shot (10 to 20 feet). After securing the harpoon in the whale's side, the crew of the whaleboat held on for a "Nantucket Sleighride."

As the injured whale towed the boat through the water, the crew maneuvered to tire out the prey and bring the boat up close. Once the whale was still, the mate approached from the back of the boat with the lance, a long spear which probed the inside of the whale, hoping to reach the lungs and cause death by asphyxiation. When the whale emitted a spray of blood from its blowhole, the cry went up, "chimneys afire!" and the crew secured the whale to to the carcass to the whale ship.

Yes, this sounds gross. It probably was.

The blacksmith's shop was hands on. I picked up a harpoon and showed it to Joshie. We imagined what it must have been like to get so close to a whale, throw the harpoon, and hold on for dear life.

Moored nearby was the Charles W. Morgan. It had been one of the last whaling ships to hunt for whales--long after petroleum had replaced whale oil as an illuminant and lubricant and the prices has collapsed.

As we entered, Owen's mood darkened. He is an animal lover; I am a history nut. Perhaps his take on the whaling story was opposite to mine.

We talked with the guide and toured the captain's galley--a bed with matters and a toilet, the captain lived in luxury, and he shared a table with his mates.
Owen kept up a negative whine, shoving his cousins and causing chaos.

"That does it," I said. "Walk the plank!"

He looked at me and frowned.

"I mean it. I want you to walk right off this ship and wait for us at the end of the plank."

Owen turned and stomped off. (The picture, right, shows him waiting for us when we left the ship.)

We continued into the blubber room, into which strips of whale blubber were lowered and cut. I had read that whale oil was some of the strongest smelling stuff known to man--and the lower decks reeked. It was said that you could smell a returning whale ship before you saw it; others insisted that whale ships could be smelled from three to five miles away.

Once the whale had been killed, there were only two commodities American whalers sought: oil and ambergris. In the sperm whale--preferred prey of Americans--the head contained a huge, 500-gallon chamber of a special oil known as spermaceti (its cloudy texture resembled human sperm and gave the whale its name). As for the rest of the whale, whalers cut into the blubber with the long whaling spades, rotating the whale in the water and peeling it as one would peel an orange, with one long line of blubber coming free.

(Other valuable commodities from sperm whales included whale teeth--sperm are one of the only whale species that have teeth instead of baleen--which were worth their weight in gold on the South Sea islands. Also, ambergris is a substance found in the intestines of sperm whales that was used in perfumes and seasonings.)

Back on the main deck, we checked out the try works, where the blubber was melted into oil and drained into barrels. We walked the plank to find Owen waiting patiently for us, ready to move on.

Later I left Julie with the kids at a kids-oriented exhibit, and I took Owen through the museum. Owen has a great personality, but he is something of an introvert. Jenny and I have learned to give him his space when he really starts to act up.

Together we examined wonderful examples of scrimshaw (artwork painted onto a whale's tooth) and watched ancient film footage shot during one of the last whaling voyages, around 1909.

We finished with a meal at the galley--my only sampling of fish & chips the entire trip. Before leaving, we posed for pictures on a doomed whale boat.

For me, Mystic was the highlight of the trip, both for the seaport and for the aquarium, which I will blog about next. That so much history and character could be bottled up in such a charming town! If you go to New England, it is a must, methinks.

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