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Night of the Falling Stars
Bird of Dreadful Night

The Cult of Monadnock

© J. McKenney

The Whale Road

For the Anglo-Saxons, the great encircling world ocean was known as the Whale Road.

This could have been an old story:  You go down to the sea, ship aboard an aging vessel with a motley crew, and sail out from an old seaport town to follow the whale.

In fact, it was a new story. We set out to hunt for whales from Long Wharf in Boston, but the purpose of the voyage was to study whales, not kill them, and the final destination was the shoaly waters of Stellwagen Bank and not some distant sea. Furthermore, the crew was made up of college-educated folks who had at least temporarily deserted the normal world and, as the expression has it, had come up through hawseholes to work aboard the Regina Maris, one of the last wooden-hulled barkentines still at sea. There were a number of researchers on board; there was a contingent of college students,  and there was a journalist with us, an Englishman with bad teeth who dressed in tattersall shirts and pressed slacks. I had come along to learn something about ctenophores and sand lances, the favorite foods of the humpback whales.  We were to be there for a week, undertaking a survey of the humpback population of Stellwagen Bank.  But as sometimes happens on these adventures, things fell apart.

Everything began well enough on a Sunday evening at Long Wharf.  It was warm, and after dark the old vessel cast off and we motored out through the black islands,  threading through the  Narrows, past Lovells, and Georges, and on past Graves Light and the shoals of Roaring Bulls. The city lights faded, the moon rose, the breeze freshened, and the crew laid aloft and  began the business of setting sail, throwing off gaskets, overhauling the buntlines and clew lines, and hoisting the yards on the foremast.

There was a ring around the moon that night. The  snaggledtoothed Englishman came out on deck and eyed it for a while.  "God bless you, lad," he said to me.  "God bless us everyone.   It's a bad moon." 

I am not sure what he meant.  I think he was drunk.

I had to stand the dogwatch that night, and when I came on deck, the moon had  disappeared and I noticed that the wind was hauling around to the east --- not a good sign in these parts.  By dawn it was raining, and by ten o'clock, when I came out again, the wind was up.  The crew had taken in the topgallant, and were beginning to shorten sail, and by midmorning, winds were gale force.  At the midday meal, the Englishman lifted his fork above his plate, winked, and made a sign of the cross for the benefit of the students.  "Northeaster,"  he said.

This time he was sober.

The purpose of this voyage was to find out what the humpback population of Stellwagen was feeding on that year. But by afternoon, it was too rough to trawl. There were grim, four-foot seas all around us with their tops ripped off, and white caps as far as the eye could see. Nevertheless, whales were all around us---finbacks and humpbacks, minkes, and Atlantic white-sided doplhins.  But by now the students, who were supposed to be taking a census of the humpbacks, were growing too queasy to work.  That night at the evening meal, half the contingent failed to show.

The Regina Maris was built in Denmark in 1908 and was showing her age.  (In fact, that autumn on the way to Bermuda she was dismasted.) In my bunk, amidst the roll and pitch, I could smell salt and moud, and hear the groans and creaks of ancient timbers.  Periodically, the poor old vessel would take a real hit.  Gear crashed to the decks at these onslaughts, and when I came out to take my watch, trays and food and barrels were strewn around below deck.  Many people were still up, their heads on the trestle table in the main saloon, too sick to sleep.

By the second day, it was clear that we were in the teeth of a true-to-form northeaster.  Great white-fanged breakers were slamming into the bows,  sheeting green water up over the foredeck and raking the topsides.  Sail had been shortened even more, and the old barkentine was steadily plowing along under her staysails alone.  Now almost every one was sick.  Once bright- eyed students were lolling in the gunnels, dull-eyed now and pale. The hardy crew and one or two of the researchers were the only ones able to eat.  The English journalist stood bravely upright, alone on the port side of the vessel bracing himself with one hand on the ratlines.

He looked as pale as the students, but refused to admit it. "Carry on, then," he said, as I passed him on my way below.

I had come here to study whales, but, since in my sometimes-straying youth I had worked on sailing vessels and (perhaps unfortunately) had a strong stomach, I found myself working again. I helped on deck, and for a while even returned to my lowly original work at sea, that of dishwashing.  Not that there was much to do.  No one was eating much.  By now, the belowdecks were awash with seawater and diesel fuel. 

On the third night, I had to do a long stint at the helm. The wind had diminished slightly, but the swells were worse and waves kept slamming the rudder so hard it was difficult to hold a course.  It took two us of us to hold the wheel, and my mate on that watch was the Englishman.  City clothes notwithstanding, it turned out that he had spent some time on the Solent and knew a thing or two about the sea and nasty weather. Nonetheless, periodically during our watch, he was forced to excuse himself and lean over the rail.

The wind hauled to the northwest the next day. The health of the students improved; research began again and that night the moon was clear and the wind  dropped. Just before I turned in, I heard a fresh gush of wind off the starboard bow.  It was as if the sea itself had exhaled, a huge outrush, followed by a warm, sickening stench of fish, saltwater, and something rotten.

"Whale's taking a breather," a passing crewman said.

This was no ordinary breathing.  This was like something out of time, a primordial intake and exhalation, a great living sigh that spoke of storms and tides, cascades, and volcanoes, thousand-year rains, glaciers, melting ice caps, and the whole history of whale life---from their first tentative walk out onto the dry land during the Pliocene; through the twelve-million-year epoch of the Miocene, when they lived as land mammals; and on to that moment when, for reasons known only to themselves, they returned to what the old Anglo-Saxons termed the whale road, the world ocean, the great encircling sea that these fellow mammals call home. 


Sanctuary: the Journal of the Massachusetts Audubon Society

January/February 1998

Volume 37 Number 3




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