Sailing Stories

Penn State Associate Professor of English Hester Blum, who studies maritime culture and storytelling, had the unique opportunity last year to spend eighteen hours at sea on a 19th-century wooden whaleship, restored for one more sail.

July 8, 2014: I was high in the rigging of the last remaining wooden whaleship in the world, the Charles W. Morgan, and I was mildly terrified. When a sailor ascends the rigging of a masted sailing ship, he or she eventually encounters platforms known as the "tops," which extend beyond the terminus of the lines or "shrouds." To stand atop the top, as a matter of pride, a sailor swings over the outer edge of the of the platform—suspended for a moment in space, hanging upside down—scorning the safer route of reaching the top through the "lubber's hole." The lubber's hole is an opening in the platform through which one could crawl, conservatively, rather than perform the more nimble nautical maneuver of tumbling up and over the out-jutting periphery of the top. 

A large wooden whaleship stands docked with the American flag flying in the wind.

The Charles W. Morgan

The Charles W. Morgan, the last remaining wooden whaleship in the world, stands docked in New Bedford, Massachusetts, preparing for sail after a years-long restoration program.

Image: Hester Blum

I was most certainly a lubber or greenhand (the seaman's historical terms of derision for a landsperson), but I jumped at the chance to go aloft. When I stood on the ratlines about a third of the way up the immense main mast of the Charles W. Morgan, clutching the shrouds just a foot or two below the platform, my fear was not just of falling to the deck or the sea far below, untethered as I was.

I was high in the rigging of the last remaining wooden whaleship in the world, the Charles W. Morgan, and I was mildly terrified.

With some shame I had anticipated that I would probably have to perform like an amateur—squeeze through the lubber's hole rather than spring out over the rim of the main-top. That small chagrin, however, was soon met with the frightening realization that the lubber's hole was too small to admit my adult self through its constricted aperture. The lubber's hole was too narrow; I was stuck.

The ship's mast leads up to the lubber's hole.

The Charles W. Morgan's "Lubber's Hole"

The ship's mast and shrouds lead to the "tops," where the "lubber's hole" exists as a conservative way to reach the platform—"rather than perform the more nimble nautical maneuver of tumbling up and over the out-jutting periphery of the top," says Hester Blum.

Image: Hester Blum

Last summer I went briefly to sea on a ship built in 1841 as a member of the "38th Voyage" of the Charles W. Morgan. The great old whaler was no longer hunting whales, of course, but was instead on a mission to "raise awareness of America’s maritime heritage and to call attention to issues of ocean sustainability and conservation," as Mystic Seaport, the ship's home port and restorer, described the venture.

Herman Melville spent eighteen months on his whaleship; I spent eighteen hours on mine.

I was one of a group of teachers, artists, writers, museum professionals, and journalists serving as public historians for the ship's 38th Voyage (voyages 1-37 took place between 1841 and 1921) with the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities. As an English professor at Penn State, I specialize in nineteenth-century American literature with a particular interest in Herman Melville; I study sailors’ participation in literary culture as producers and consumers of books. As a 38th Voyager, I had the remarkable opportunity to have a transitory encounter with America's maritime past.

Hester Blum reads a large hardback copy of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick

Hester Blum reads Moby-Dick

Hester Blum reads a large hardback copy of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, seated next to a diorama of a ship much like the Charles W. Morgan. Blum specializes in 19th century American literature and has a particular interest in the work of Herman Melville. 

Image: Michelle Bixby

To a teacher and scholar of Herman Melville, the Charles W. Morgan presents a special magnetism. The Morgan is a sister ship to the Acushnet, the whaleship on which a young Melville famously went to sea in 1841, ten years before he would publish Moby-Dick. Both the Morgan and the Achusnet—nearly identical in construction—were built in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and launched the same year. My 38th Voyage leg also sailed from New Bedford, 173 years later. Herman Melville spent eighteen months on his whaleship; I spent eighteen hours on mine.

While looking through the thin slot that did not seem wide enough to justify the name "lubber's hole," I was mindful of the terrifically skilled crew of professional sailors keeping watch over our lubberly climb. The crew never stopped working while aboard the Morgan. They ran up the rigging, untied gaskets, hoisted sails, scooted out on footropes along the yardarms, sweated away on the ropes that govern the square-rigged ship. Watching their exercise of nautical skill, I considered Melville's relationship to expertise, and my own. Did I belong on the Charles W. Morgan? Had I earned my short passage by virtue of my book learning, my armchair knowledge? Could I make it to the top? 

Hester Blum climbs the rigging on a 19th century whaling ship.

Hester Blum Climbs the Rigging

Hester Blum tries her hand at climbing the rigging on the Charles W. Morgan. Though she sailed in the role of a public historian, she had some opportunities to experience the sailor's life. 

Image: Hester Blum

A moment in Moby-Dick took on new meaning to me as I paused below the main-top. The jesting second mate of the Pequod, Stubb, provokes the whaleship's cook, Fleece, into giving a sermon to a frenzy of sharks. "Perhaps you expect to get into heaven by crawling through the lubber's hole, cook," Stubb suggests to him afterward; "but no, no, cook, you don't get there, except you go the regular way, round by the rigging. It's a ticklish business, but must be done, or else it's no go."

As a 38th Voyager, I had the remarkable opportunity to have a transitory encounter with America's maritime past. 

"A ticklish business": that is how I, too, found the prospect of getting to the imagined "heaven" of the tops in true sailor-style. In my mind, to use the language of the sea literature I continue to read, teach, and write about, I imaginatively lounge in the tops, a veritable "artist in the rigging." But I am not there yet, in body. On that July day last summer, I fit neither through the lubber's hole nor was nautically fit to "go the regular way, round by the rigging." I climbed down the shrouds and returned to my books. 

About Hester Blum

Hester Blum is an associate professor of English at Penn State. She is the President of the Herman Melville Society (2015) and Vice President of C19: The Society of Nineteenth-Century Americanists. Her essays on her voyage on the Charles W. Morgan are collected here: http://sites.psu.edu/hester/38th-voyage/