Here is the foreword to my book about Bethuel Gifford’s and Thomas Chatfield’s adventures. A download link for a PDF version of the first chapter — the wreck of the whaling ship Phoenix is at the bottom of this post. Enjoy. Comments and criticism most appreciated.
I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts. Herman Melville, Moby Dick
They were the sort of men who clubbed baby seals, tattooed their faces during drunken benders, spread syphilis throughout Polynesia, and carved pornography into the teeth of dead sperm whales. They were fugitive alcoholics shaking in their bunks with delirium tremens, greenhorn farm boys keen for an adventure, negroes and Wampanoags and descendants of Hessian mercenaries stranded by the defeated British Army. They were controlled by acerbic mates from bleak Cape Cod villages who kept to themselves, mostly brothers and cousins, nephews and uncles, and were fast with their fists to keep the scum from rising up from the mephitic stench of the forecastle to mutiny on the high seas.
The first thing that happened to them when the pilot was sent ashore and the ship cleared Gay Head was the collection of their knives so the captain could snap off their points in a seam of the deck, blunting them to reduce the number of stabbings. They were divided into watches and picked by the mates in a quick draft to sit in one of the five whaleboats. The Captain had one, the chief or first mate another, and so on down to the fourth mate. Each whaleboat carried six men. The mates and captain steered. The other five pulled an oar. The harpooner pulled the bow oar because he did his work from the prow of the light boat, bracing his knee in a semicircle cut into the thwart, reaching behind to his right to lift a harpoon from its split oak crutch.
Once a whale was struck, the harpooner and the mate swapped ends, rushing to pass the other and take their place while the whale ran, sounding deep and taking fathoms of line with it. Then the harpooner took the tiller and became the boatsteerer and the mate lifted a long lance and prepared to kill the leviathan by stabbing it in the heart and lungs until it expelled a geyser of dark red blood through its spout.
They were butchers who could cut up a whale and convert it into oil. They worked in gore, slipped on decks marinated in fat and blood, and lost their sense of smell as the fishy stench of whale shit and blood festered out of the woodgrain in the tropical heat. If they fell from the rigging, dislocated a shoulder, or sliced themselves open flensing blubber from a whale they had to heal on their own. If their muscles ached and their teeth became loose then they were scorbutic and began to die in the absence of fresh fruit and vegetables, barely subsisting on a diet of salted meat and dry crackers.
They were men who voyaged into the void of the ocean for three years at a time, self-contained in their 100-foot ships, self-sufficient with enough rations and water to keep them alive for months without going ashore. They sailed into the blank spaces on the charts, to places no hydrographer had surveyed, coming upon indigenous people who gawked at the tall ships cruising into idyllic atolls and Arctic straits, corrupting them with bottles of rum and firearms, then inevitably fighting them and leaving them to die with some new pestilence.
They sailed to the antipodes where they could be beastly men far from the judgment of those they left behind.
They were whalers and they were fortune seekers a hot for a dollar as any prospector or ambitious American. They were the operators of the most complicated and highly engineered machines in existence: tall ships built to survive the caprices of the sea. In those ships they prospered, and many died. In those ships they explored lands as alien as the planets they navigated by.
They were equivalent to astronauts as they explored the blank spaces around the edges of the known world. Their space capsule was made of oak and pine; tar, hemp and canvas; 100-foot, three-masted abattoirs that announced themselves by their stench wafting on the wind long before the emerged over the horizon.
They guessed where they were all the time, sailing with only a rough idea of where they were and where they were going, but never exactly sure until they sighted a known landmark. They existed as lost men lost in the void of the true blue sea.
They lived with doubt whenever they sailed. They rarely stopped, only going ashore and anchoring in ports where water and food could be found or bought, and oil and bone could be sold. If they stopped then some would run away, undone by the constant anxiety of the endless blue water passages through doldrums and cyclones. They fled and hid until the ship sailed away, emerging from their hiding places to stand on the beach, new men becoming shuffling, sun-burned beachcombers and Crusoe’s beneaped and stranded far from home.
The ones who stayed aboard placed their trust and lives in the abilities of the aloof figure who stood alone and unapproachable at the windward shrouds by the wheel. He was the only man aboard other than the mate, who had the knowledge and the tools to find and measure the angles of the sun and the moon and the stars. He was the only man who could calculate and note in the ship’s log, with the shaky confidence of a scientist who doubts his tools — his hand wound chronometer gimballed in a box, the fogged, cracked glass of the eyepiece of his spray warped wood and ivory quadrant – the daily position of the ship. That made him the Master of the ship, the diviner of the celestial mysteries, the holder of the knowledge that made him king of the floating kingdom and kept his three dozen illiterate subjects obedient and at bay in their miserable lair under the deck of the ship’s bluff bow.
They were fugitives from justice, raging alcoholics, Wampanoag Indians in debt to English merchants, runaway slaves, green farm boys, and romantic dandies flunked out of college. They lived like scorbutic troglodytes in narrow bunks, the walls of the ship oozing green mold in the tropics, stinking up the fug filled stagnant air with their coughs and their flatulence. They never bathed. Knowing how to swim only prolonged their agony should they fall overboard because the ship never stopped, and even if they were lucky enough to grab a line trailing astern, there was no way they could pull themselves back aboard. They deserted the first chance they could; preferring to take their chances ashore with cannibals than remain aboard another day. They fled the ships if their captain was foolish enough to come into a port and give them an option to run away but most captains were too short-handed to offer them that temptation. So they stayed at sea for months at a time, never sure of where they were, depending on the captain’s incantations and formulas to There were no drugs to soothe the constant anxiety of life aboard a wooden sailing ship with no EPIRB beacons, no radios, no GPS plotters, not even charts of the oceans because in some cases they were the first men to visit the strange islands of the South Pacific or the desolate barren coasts of the arctic.
They drank out of desperation to numb themselves long enough to endure. They persevered if they didn’t desert and rode out the will of the sea and the temper of the captain until their ordeal was finally over and they were lucky to walk away with a sliver sized share of the profits, barely enough to pay off their debts to the ship and to pay for a bender in a New Bedford brothel. They found themselves aboard again the following fall for lack of any other place to go in the society of the land.
These were the sort of men that Bethuel Gifford Handy, Jr. — 29 years-old and the eldest son of the Handy-Nickerson clans of Cotuit Port — was in command of in the spring of 1858, on the Nantucket whaling ship Phoenix, as she tacked back and forth off the shores of Honolulu, her first captain going ashore all worn out and ill and incapable of command. Handy had shipped out two years before as the first mate of the Phoenix. Now, on only his second whaling voyage, he was in command of 36 men desperate to follow their former captain ashore and be free from the fear of the summer ahead in the Russian Sea of Okhotsk, the worst waters on the planet, a sea covered by ice three-quarters of the year and fog the rest. A bitterly cold stark place with rough shores with no ports, no charts, no brothels, nothing but sullen natives, deranged Russians on the edge of civilization, and vast herds of right whales congregating in the kitchen of the Pacific to feast on tons of microscopic plankton. They wouldn’t be alone. There would be hundreds of other ships, identical to their own, all of them three-masted, tall ships painted black with sheer sides and blunt bows, floating factory ships designed to hunt, chase, kill and butcher the largest animals on the planet.
Download link for Chapter One: