Last November, just as I started writing the first draft of The Wrecks and War of Bethuel Handy, I made a pilgrimage to Mystic Seaport to spend some time aboard the last surviving whaling ship, the Charles W. Morgan. I pestered the docent who was standing by the ship’s wheel with all sorts of questions about the restoration project that resulted in the Morgan making a cruise up the New England coast during the summer of 2014. I was in Provincetown when the ship came into the harbor under sail and was in awe of seeing such a mythical ship alive again.
I watched a few videos about the restoration and the cruise, and paid close attention to the words of the Morgan‘s captain, Kip Files, as he described the process of wearing ship, or tacking.
A few weeks ago I hunted him down on LinkedIn and asked him, as the only living captain of a whaling ship, what he thought of Bethuel Handy’s options as the Phoenix went ashore on Elbow Island in the Sea of Okhotsk during a mid-October blizzard. He kindly replied and asked for more information — which I pulled together from my research and sent to him last night. Here’s what he had to say about Bethuel’s options at 4 am on October 11, 1858 off the coast of Siberia:
“Interesting story. Very tuff situation. There is no true way to get off a lee shore. Every time would be different as the shore, waves, current and wind would hardly be the same. It is something an experienced captain would take all his years of knowledge of sailing and his particular vessel to give it a try. having only one anchor made his job more difficult. . There would be no helm ( steering by rudder) until the vessel had some way on. Even then in those seas it would be a miracle if it responded at all. you would need lots of movement by the rudder for it to respond.
Cutting away the mast. I do not think there would be time. Desperate move not knowing were they would fall. They are built to stay in place just cutting them might force them thru the deck. I have never known anyone to do this but it is possible. I am going to read this again. Hard to get what is going thru the captains mind. Logs don’t reflect it well as they show no emotion on purpose. Do you have the lat and long of were this happened? I might have a better feel for what was happening. I do know that the class of whaling ship are pretty handy. They sail a lot better than shore side experts give them credit.
I’m really looking forward to his reaction after he reads the sailing instructions for the Gulf of Uda and the Shantar Islands. It sounds like sailing in hell to me.
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.
One man’s adventures from the Gold Rush through a Siberian shipwreck to the Battle of New Orleans
Bethuel Handy was my great-great-grandmother Florentine’s big brother. He was born in Cotuit on Cape Cod in 1829 and was 74 years old when he died in 1904. I knew very little about him when I was growing up save for two detailed mentions in my great-great grandfather’s reminscences.
The first event occurred in October 1858 in the Sea of Okhotsk amongst the Shantar Islands, a wild archipelago that teems with bowhead whales, pilot whales,* beluga whales, killer whales, sea lions, Siberian tigers and Kamchatka brown bears. Bethuel was 29 years old and had been the captain of the Nantucket whaling ship Phoenix for all of six months after the ship’s original master, Joseph Hinckley of Centerville, fell ill just before she sailed from Hawaii to the frozen Russian sea in April of that year. It was his first command. He had been on only one other whaling voyage and now was captain of his second. The first was on his Uncle Horace Nickerson’s ship, the Massachusetts, and that is the second mention of Bethuel made by his brother-in-law, Thomas Chatfield.
Chatfield wrote an account of his life’s adventures for his four daughters in 1905. Bethuel’s death may have caused the women to press their father to write down his sea stories before he too slipped his hawser. So he wrote his autobiography and Bethuel did not, which meant all the family legend and lore of the Gold Rush, about whaling in the Pacific, capturing Confederate blockade runners off the Florida Keys were but one man’s version of events which only hinted at what Bethuel experienced in those same tumultous times.
For some reason no one in the family thought it worth disclosing that Bethuel married Thomas’s sister Mary. I didn’t fully grasp the strangeness of that double-brother-in-law relationship until I subscribed to Ancestry.com and started building the family tree. Thomas married Florentine Handy first, and then a few years later, Bethuel Handy married Mary Chatfield, the only girl in a family of ten btothers. So I started musing about that kind of family dynamic and how uncommon it is, and how perhaps the isolation of Cotuit Port in the mid-19th century and biological urges to mate with a new member of the gene pool from outside of the community, as well as the expediency of available eligible spouses at a time when a whaling voyage lasted three or more years, and well……it just seemed really weird to me for reasons I couldn’t put my finger on.
So I decided to learn more about Bethuel Handy. For the past five years I’ve been digging through the archives of the Nantucket Historical Association, the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the California Daily Alta, and talking to Handy’s descendants to find out what documents he may have left behind. The result was startling. Among the things I learned after a lifetime of hearing one version of events, were some startling truths that my family didn’t know. To wit:
Chatfield ran away from his home in Cornwall-on-the-Hudson in 1847 when he was sixteen years old. He had been working at a textile mill on Moodna Creek since the age of 12, forced into child labor by his father Nicholas, a destitute tanner with 11 children who had been expelled from England for refusing to pay a tax to the Church of England. When he met two brothers on a schooner from Cotuit at the quay of Albany he lied and told them his name was “John Thomas” and that he was recently arrived from England in search of his family, whom he had been told were somewhere along the Hudson, but now were apparently in Boston.
Chatfield maintained that alias and fictional story for years in Cotuit after he was taken in the Nickerson clan — Bethuel’s mother’s side of the family. Bethuel learned the truth about his future brother-in-law in San Francisco during the Gold Rush when he happened to meet some sailors from the Massachusetts who knew Chatfield’s true identity. He confronted Chatfield about this fact back in Cotuit in the spring of 1853, and forbid the young man from marrying his sister Florentine until he returned to Cornwall to prove that he wasn’t a fugitive from justice.
Bethuel told the full story of his wreck in the Sea of Okhotsk to a reporter at the San Francisco newspaper, the Daily Alta, in 1859
Bethuel’s experiences at a Russian fort over the winter of 1858-59 were shared by a young deserter from another ship, Daniel Weston Hall, who published an account of that winter in Siberia in a book Arctic Rovings
Bethuel’s experience as a volunteer office in the Union Navy during the Civil War was very different from Chatfield’s. Bethuel was assigned to a gunboat that was part of Admiral David Farragut’s assault and capture of New Orleans and siege of Vicksburg.
Bethuel was so unsettled by his wartime experience on the Mississippi River that he had a religious experience involving a promise to God to get baptized at the earliest opportunity should he survive the carnage aboard the gunship USS Wissahickon. When the ship was pulled out of the battleline by Farragut and sent to Philadelphia for repairs, Bethuel missed orders assigning him to a new ship. His excuse? He was getting baptized. He was demoted as a result, and in a fit of anger resigned, leaving the service in 1862.
The revelations of this research convinced me it was worthy of a book. For the longest time I struggled to find the best way to tell Bethuel’s story. Was it fodder for a novel? How could I fully explore the fascinating relationship between him and Chatfield on the basis of a few scanty newspaper clippings and ship logs? In the end I decided to first write the story as a diligently researched and attributed work of history, inserting my novelistic projections of the emotional lives of the two brothers-in-law where appropriate, but hewing closely to the factual footnoting and sourcing on the first draft.
I began writing in November of 2019 and finished the first draft in 100 days. Now, during the social distancing phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m revising the manuscript, taking a machete to the text and removing the redundancies, re-ordering the chapter structure, and inserting — where it feels honestly appropriate — my own speculations into the untold story of these two men and their wives during a period of incredible change in society. These men were born at a time when they weren’t expected to live past 50 years. They were the last master mariners in the age of sail and experienced warfare aboard steam powered ships in a brutal war that introduced machines to warfare for the first time. They were true 49’ers — experiencing the phenomenon of the California Gold Rush first hand as young men. They were whalers at the peak of the golden age of that messy, profitable industry, capable of sailing tens of thousands of miles to the antipodes to hunt and massacre the biggest animals on the planet. They lived dangerous lives, lives of uncertainty and fear with none of the conveniences we know today. No charts. No GPS. No engines. No communications. They lived most of their marriages apart from their wives, coming home long enough to impregnate those poor women with another baby, a child that would be born while they were at sea. They were the generation that had to adapt to huge change — born in a world of candle light and wooden ships, dying in a world of telephones, electric light, automobiles and flight. They had no safety net. No social security. No medicine. Nothing but themselves and their knowledge of the sea and the stars.
And as I, along with the rest of the world, found myself contemplating my mortality as the killer virus threatened my ability to have a dinner out with my wife, I began to project myself into the minds of two very different men who lived parallel lives bound together by more than friendship and I wondered why one, the native son of Cotuit, Bethuel Handy, vanished from the village after the Civil War; and why the other, Chatfield, a fugitive who arrived in Cotuit a stranger under an alias, transformed himself from a brawling runaway into the cliche of the old salt, celebrated for his civic commitments, his Masonry, and his life simply because he wrote it down.
Anyway, as usual I digress. I thought I’d publish some of the first draft here in installments over the coming weeks. I don’t know what will happen to this work, eventually I’ll ask an agent to give it a look and seek out a publisher. But I know it is far from done, and won’t be done in my mind until I get myself to the Shantar Islands to see, with my own eyes, the place where two young men made their fortune and misfortune so far from home. I feel it’s time that Bethuel Handy get credit for an act of heroism on a level with Ernest Shackleton’s.