Moby Trek: Mission Failure

Last fall the New Bedford Whaling Museum sent an email to the membership inviting them to read in the 13th annual Moby Dick marathon in early January.

Dork that I am, I signed up for a slot and was told on the automated voice response system that I would get a confirmation in early December.

I didn’t get a confirmation until last week, on Monday, and I was informed by the nice lady that my reading time was 5:20 am on Sunday January 4 (today) and that I needed to arrive at least an hour beforehand. Let’s see. 4:20 am in New Bedford. Need to find a parking place by 4 am. New Bedford is 45 miles from Cotuit. So …. Wake up at 3 am on the last night of the holiday break to read ten minutes from an assuredly great novel that was the ruination of its author and wasn’t “discovered” until 1920, many decades after his death?

I asked family what they would do and they all said I was an idiot and none would come to watch me be an idiot. Then I asked Uncle Fester who said, and I quote from the IM exchange:

“Are you f%^king kidding me? Loser! That’s worse that being a Trekkie going to a ComicCon. Reading Moby Dick from the deck of a whaling ship in the dark in front of other Moby Dick Trekkies. I’ll only respect you if you do it dressed as Spock.”

Not having a Spock suit, but getting Fester’s point, I slept in this morning and am glad for it. There was only one passage I wanted to read, and that is the piece I read at my father’s funeral in 1980.

Here it is:

“Round the world! There is much in that sound to inspire proud feelings; but whereto does all that circumnavigation conduct? Only through numberless perils to the very point whence we started, where those that we left behind secure, were all the time before us.

Were this world an endless plain, and by sailing eastward we could for ever reach new distances, and discover sights more sweet and strange than any Cyclades or Islands of King Solomon, then there were promise in the voyage. But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.”

Chatfield papers: primary research

I went to Nantucket on Monday to revive the stalled Captain Chatfield project which I started with great enthusiasm in the spring of 2006. To recap, I transcribed the reminiscences of my great-great-grandfather, Captain Thomas Chatfield, and got them into “digital” form by manually retyping them over the course of many lonely evenings in Raleigh, North Carolina. When I finished I considered turning to his Civil War letters, but somehow the amateur historian in me wanted to focus from the beginning, on something more interesting than transcription. I wanted to do some research.

When I was in college in the 1970s I seriously considered majoring and going on to graduate school in American maritime history. I have an abiding passion for 19th century commercial maritime history, particularly shellfishing, coastal trade, and American yacht design. Historians like Howard Chappelle were my heroes and I wrote a very good paper (for a sophomore) on the development of the New Haven Sharpie which recently resurfaced when a correspondent asked me to sign a copy for his brother who was building one of the oyster skiffs. Unfortunately commercial reality diverted me from my dream of becoming a professor of maritime history but I continue to read whatever I can get my hands on and am a true sucker for a maritime museum like the New Bedford Whaling Museum or Mystic Seaport.

One discipline that was pounded into my head at Yale was the supremacy of primary research: going to the archives, the registry of deeds, the hall of records, the clerk of courts, and reading the Grantee/Grantor books, the plats, the marriage and death certificates. The first time I had it pushed on me was in my first American History course when the assignment was a straight forward project around the Boston Massacre. Here was a seminal event in the history of the country and I had to read the court records and the accounts of the witnesses, the defense of John Quincy Adams …. I was hooked. I became a total library rat, digging for the letters, the first-person accounts, the official record and turning my back on some other historian’s neat and pat condensation of events.

So I arrived at the Nantucket Whaling Museum and the docent asked if I wanted a tour. I asked for the library and was told I was in the wrong building altogether and needed to walk across town, over the cobblestoned streets to the Nantucket Historical Association housed in an annex attached to the Quaker Meetinghouse. Reader’s of Nathaniel Philbrick’s, In the Heart of the Sea will be familiar with the role the Quakers played in founding the Nantucket whaling industry. For a short time in the early 19th century, Nantucket was arguably the most prosperous, wealthy, and wordly place in the world, with the possible exception of London. Nantucket whalers were exploring the South Pacific, the first white men to arrive on many islands only explored a few decades earlier by Cook. They brought back great rewards for their risks, amassing (and saving with their thrift) huge fortunes some of which survive, much diminished in some old Massachusetts family fortunes. As I poked my head into the meetinghouse I thought, “This was the Sand Hill Road of the 1820s. Imagine the voyages planned, the losses mourned, and the profits celebrated on those hard benches.”

The library of the NHA is a little place: a few tables, a nice skylight, a curator’s office and a librarian’s station by the glass door. I didn’t have an appointment and felt bad about intruding, but I explained my mission to the librarian – I wanted to get some information about the Ship Massachusetts, its fate, and, if possible, the whereabouts of its logs, the “diaries” maintained by the captain (my ancestor) and his officers. The challenge of the reminiscences is that they are a narrative written to Chatfield’s four daughters, and as such are certainly bowdlerized to some extent to spare their young sensibilities. More maddening is the variance in place names and in some instances, what appears to be the coining of new place names like the “Friendly Islands” or “Mucktoe Bay.” My goal is to correlate Chatfield’s stories and remembrances with the precision of the logs. The first challenge is to locate those logs – some of which my father discovered in a trunk in the early 1970s and promptly donated to the Kendall Whaling Museum in Sharon, Massachusetts. Those logs had been given to the captain’s daughters who used them as scrapbooks, pasting newspaper clippings and illustrations from magazines over the accounts of the voyages! Kendall paid to have them restored, microfilmed and provided them a secure, climate controlled shelf. I thought my father had also given some of the material to Nantucket (he died in 1980), but wasn’t sure. I remember him ruing the loss or undiscovery of the log of the final voyage before the Civil War, the last whaling voyage Chatfield made before enlisting in the Union Navy.

The librarian checked her records and asked, to my delight, if I would like to read the log of the 1856 voyage. She asked another researcher to go down into the vault, handed me a pair of white cotton gloves and a mechanical pencil (pens are a total horror in the general vicinity of any rare book or manuscript).

The researcher returned with a manila box. I opened it up and set the log on the plastic lectern cradle. Immediately upon opening I realized why my father had never located it. It had been donated to the NHA by George Folger and the flyleaf carried the name of William Folger, the First Mate of that voyage.

I asked the librarian who was recorded as the log keeper. She looked it up on her database and replied it was indeed Folger. So, what I was about to read was maintained not by Chatfield, but by his first mate. That was normal for most whaling ships.

Folger had the typical “spidery” penmanship seen in 19th century manuscripts. The writing was legible, but difficult to comprehend in the early going, especially abbreviations and numbers. I turned on my ThinkPad and opened the transcribed reminiscences, searched for September 28, 1856, and got in synch with the log, following along and taking notes as I proceeded, entering the daily position into a spreadsheet for plotting later in Google Earth. Those observations were annotated as being either estimated through “dead reckoning” (D=RxT) or by “OBS” or observation, with “LUN” noted if the longitude was calculated using the “lunar” method. A typical entry is divided into three segments or periods of time: “Commenced”, or the first part of the day, “Middle Part” and “Latter Part”. The course, the wind speed, and any chores are noted.

The entry for October 4, 1856 is typical of 90% of all entries:

“Saturday Oct 4

These 24 hours begins with a moderate breeze from the WSW steering E by S

Middle part squally from the SW. Latter part fine breeze from the SW steering by the wind. Sail in sight. DR 39.55N 72.5W”

And so on and so forth for many pages. What catches the reader’s eye are the “whale stamps” — drawings of a whale’s tail flukes to indicate the sighting of a whale. Many fishermen keep detailed logs of their catches, and whalers were no different, using the margin marks to quickly scan a log for the good parts, the chase and killing of a whale.

One mark was unique, as it carried the carefully printed letters “B” and “M.” The librarian, curator and I spent 15 minutes speculating on its origin, finally agreeing that it may mean “boatswain mate” as some entries indicated which boat chased or caught the whale.

I also found this curious icon next to an entry about the capture and killing of an ocean sunfish, or mola mola. Indeed, this is what a sunfish looks like. The reminiscences carry none of these details, of men being washed overboard to their deaths, or drunken fights among the crew. But then the log has none of the narrative excitement of catching a whale through a hole in the Arctic ice pack as told by my great-great grandfather. The two versions need to be merged.

I only had four hours to spend on the log before needing to leave for some late lunch and my son’s soccer game (my ostensible reason for being on the island). The chowder was an affront – the glue/paste version – but the library time was well spent. I need to return at least one more time to continue transcribing the latitude and longitude coordinates. I think the possibilities of producing an interesting .kmz file for Google Earth are limitless and could make the combination of the very readable reminiscences, the dry but factual log, and the graphical wonder of a cartographic interface very compelling in terms of an educational tool about a very dangerous, very profitable, and very anachronistic industry.

There is something remarkably stimulating about precise historical research with no apparent profit motive, just the subtle awe of holding history (the log, after all, has been around the world) written by a very brave man of whom I know very little. Dry as it may sound, sitting in one place for a few hours wearing cotton gloves and carefully turning pages, it was actually very exciting.

I leave you with Dec 9, 1857:

“Portuguese named John Enos fell overboard, the other saved himself by clinging to the bearer. Luffed the ship to the wind immediately, but it being so rugged and dark at the time did not think it prudent to lower a boat as it was impossible to do it with any safety. He said the man could swim, I heard a faint cry once in the night. Could not descern (sic) anything. Kept on our course with heavy hearts as it was beyond the power of man to do anything for him. “

About the header …

My attempts to avoid any graphical design on this blog went out the window last night when I fired up the scanner and started playing historical preservationist by running a stack of old family photos through the machine.

I came across an awesome horizontal panorama shot of Cotuit Bay taken around the turn of the century before the summer folks trashed the place and the village was a working port. This shot was taken, I assume, from the current site of Conrad Geyser’s organic garden looking east towards Osterville’s Grand Island (now some of the world’s most expensive real estate known as Oyster Harbors). The wharves and docks in the foreground are just stubs in the mud today, the old sloops and skiffs are long gone. Today this is a crowded mess of plastic boats and McMansions.

I live about 500 feet away. Here is a shot of my great uncle Thomas Fisher, a MIT civil engineer who I named my youngest son, Fisher, after. He’s sitting on what looks like an early version of the Cotuit Skiff. This shot was taken on the same beach as the panorama in the header graphic. right about where the “O” in “.com” is.

Over the years all the photo albums have been divvied up and spread to the winds. I’m issuing a challenge to all siblings and relatives that if they give me their old photos I’ll give them back a DVD stuffed with ALL of the the collection. One well meaning person, to my horror, has been trimming old photos to fit into frames. ARRRGGGGH! This stuff is priceless, at least to me and my family.

Captain Thomas Chatfield


Captain Thomas Chatfield

Originally uploaded by dchurbuck.

At home in Cotuit, here is the man in all his glory. According to the handwritten note on the back of the picture, this was taken in 1910, twelve years before his death.

I’ve scanned and uploaded a good number of photos into my Flickr account. Now the project moves onto the second phase of correcting the scanned war letters. When that is done I will need to decide how to treat the letters vis a vis the Reminiscences and whether to annotate the narrative with the details found in the epistolary account, or keep them separate and standalone.

Then I’ll move everything to Blurb, mock up the book itself, import the high res scans and finish the facsimile portion of the project before moving onto the primary research with the ship’s logs to determine the path of his voyages. That research will lead me to a Google Map tour, more contextual research (I want to learn more about the Gold Rush and Civil War is particular, having studied the whale fishery extensively in college.)

Then, when all the contextual research is finished, time to think about the book and getting it published. This is a very rewarding project personally and the antidote to a career obsessed with internet marketing.

There is a “Chatfield” photo set on my Flickr account to be found here.

The War Letters of Captain Thomas Chatfield

I just scanned the letters by Captain Thomas Chatfield, written between 1863 and 1865 while he was stationed on the Gulf coast of Florida as an Acting Master in the U.S. Navy. Most of these letters were written to his wife, Florentine (Handy) and some to his daughter Mildred (Millie).

The PDF is 6 megabytes is size. And can be downloaded here. 

I need to clean up the RTF file and convert the file into live text. I take back what I said about the scanner earlier, I just saved myself three months of work!

The end of the Chatfield Manuscript is posted

I’ve come to the end of the transcription process with very mixed emotions, but now I have another long road ahead of me in transcribing Chatfield’s letters to his wife Florentine during the Civil War years.

Anyway, the entire reminiscences are now done and I’ll post a word document for anyone who wants to read it in one take rather than skip from one web page to the next.

I can’t wait to start the primary research project. I’ll seek out his original ship’s logs from the Massachusetts at the Kendall Whaling Museum and thus be better able to cross-correlate the place names during the Pacific whaling fishery sections. A lot of the place names are misspelled or lost to time, so there is a lot of work to go before this can be put into accurate historical context.

The huge shame is that these reminiscences only cover his life to the age of 34. After that, little is known. At least there is nothing like this written record.

“You are all familiar with the life I have led during the last forty years, so I will not allude to it. The writing of the story has been a labor of love, and I have had much pleasure in doing it. Old memories have crowded upon me, and I have found it difficult to avoid making tedious by recording minor incidents common to all seafaring men.

“With all my love, I am your father ….

“AD 1905”

Chatfield — Part Eleven — The Cleaning of the Honeysuckle

Captain Chatfield proves himself to be a good housekeeper when assigned to the filthy plague ship Honeysuckle, docked in Tampa. The war is over, the defeated Confederacy is getting back on its feet, and it is fitting Captain Chat gets the job of mucking out the bilges and whitewashing the decks.

So begins the final section (I think).

Blurb – Digital Book Binder

BlurbThanks to Jim Forbes who caught the debut of this company at Demo back in February, I downloaded the client for Blurb: “Start to finish publishing software simple & smart enough to make you an author.”

Jim made the recommendation as I finish The Reminiscences of Captain Thomas Chatfield that I consider packing it in book form. When my father took the original manuscript and had it bound at a copy shop in the 1980s, the result was fairly dull, boring, and probably relatively expensive to produce in anything resembling a multiple edition. I started the transcription project for the simple reason that getting the manuscript into a digital format would free it from the physical confines (blah..blah..blah) and give me the opportunity to make infinite copies at the press of a print button. I had been toying with taking the final Word.doc and turning it into a PDF file, but as I wrote I realized that I also need to deal with the hand-drawn maps of wrecked Arctic whalers and Florida Civil War sites. Then, if I’m going to get serious about those maps, why not import some more maps, say a Google Earth mashup of the Captain’s voyages, photos of him as a young and an old man, photos of whaling ships. Well you get the picture. This project has only just started and I need to start thinking about the final output.

This is where Blurb comes in. Granted the thing is in beta — what new web business model doesn’t launch in beta thanks to Google? But I downloaded the client software last night, block saved the entire text file — all 69-single-spaced pages — and pasted into a book template. Damn near brought my Lenovo Thinkpad X41 to its knees, but after ten minutes I had a handsome looking, three column, horizontal form factor coffee table book. Without any pictures. I may be jumping the gun — I do have twenty-odd pages to complete (and then I have a ton of Civil War letters to transcribe — but it felt very good to see the fruits of three months of lonely-guy-hotel typing turn into something a heck of a lot nicer than a vinyl bound Kinko’s copy.

The client is slooww, but think of it as a Quark-lite program that flows the copy across the columns, offers image insertion, different formats, and even cover design. When it is all done you submit the book file to Blurb, which will print a single copy for around $30 for a one to forty page hardcover to as high as $80 for a 301 to 400 page book. That’s expensive, but if you think about it, not too bad. Multiple copy runs can knock ten percent off the price. If I were to consider printing ten copies to give to my children, nieces, nephews, and the village library, I’d be looking at roughly a $350 price tag. Steep, but not really if the quality is high, which it appears to be from the site’s pictures.

This price insures that Blurb will not be a threat to Vantage Press (the vanity publisher that failed authors use to get their stuff in print at all costs), nor will it be for casual users. I will play with it some more to determine the layout flexibility. So far it seems too restrictive, it doesn’t import Word files (that is coming in a future version), but judging from the example photos, the quality seems high.

You can sell your books through the Blurb site, so, all things being equal, this is essentially the CafePress of book publishing.

Cool. I think I have a goal now — to finish, get the illustrations and maps together, and run off a copy, adjust it, and then make a larger order for gifts.