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  • Work
  • John Bryant

I came on board thinking I would record the feel of the sea, the stars and darkness at night, the heat of the hold. In fact, it was an overcast night, cool day, calm sea, and foggy morning, and I found nothing unusual to feel or see. But what I learned the moment I tumbled out of my berth and clambered up on deck is that a ship is a place of work. I had known this intellectually, had read about it a good deal, and had written about it from the perspective of those books and my imagination, but now I could see it happening.

The work begins with language. Every line, mast, spar, and sail has an individual name. And the workers need to know them all. Indeed, a ship is nothing if not a glossary. And you would think it would be enough, to begin with, simply to know your glossary. But crewmember Mary K. Bercaw Edwards (also an acclaimed Melville scholar and Mystic Seaport Museum researcher) told me that the words for each line, mast, spar, and sail differ from language to language, and that once the professional crew had been hired—many coming from different ships hailing from different continents and maritime traditions—the first order of business was comparing their glossaries and deciding on which words to use for line, mast, spar, and sail. It’s a sea of words. Something an English prof might appreciate.

The deeper implication I sensed was how the sea is a multicultural nation unto itself. We think of the sea as an immense separator of nations, but it is in fact its own place. I suppose that is obvious and something, again, I had had some intellectual awareness of in reading about sea literature and culture. But watching workers speak their lingo, and learning that they had agreed to speak it together, gave me an experiential perspective; their work was making their language work, and you could see it happen on deck.

The sea is a place that draws together customs and cultures from all over, puts them into one cosmopolitan “vessel,” makes them come together. Put Palestinians and Israelis in a ship, I say, mix them equally in both watches as larbolins and starbolins, give them food and bunks, jobs, a space to share, a reason to work together. Ah, that would fix the world. But I see I am just channeling Melville too much. Or maybe not enough. True, Melville saw ships as multicultural vessels: the Neversink, the Pequod, the Fidèle, the Bellipotent. A place on the sea where humanity mixes. But he also saw obsession, corruption, tyranny, racism, deception, infamy, mutiny, and war on those ships. I need to snap out of this cosmopolitan romancing of work and the sea. [End Page 142]

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Crewmember Aaron Gralnik at the wheel of the Charles W. Morgan.

Photo courtesy of John Bryant.

[End Page 143]

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Crewmembers Geoff Kaufman, Bror Okerblom, Mary K. Bercaw Edwards, and Tim Clark hauling the braces aboard the Charles W. Morgan.

Photo courtesy of John Bryant.

[End Page 144]

Much of our morning was shrouded in fog, and we could barely make out the tug up ahead that was towing us into open waters. A high-pitched mechanical foghorn, up on the mizzenmast, began to sound in the usual woeful measure. Because of the low visibility, crewman Aaron Gralnik at the wheel in the stern could not make out the tug maybe 300 feet in front of the Morgan’s bow, which was itself 106 feet away from Aaron. So crewmember Randy Patterson stood at the prow, and with his back to Aaron and facing the tug, he signaled Aaron whenever the ship began to veer a point or two off the line attached to the tug. From my place at the bow, I could see the tug ahead and watched Randy’s gestures. Then I headed back to the stern to watch Aaron steer the ship, not by compass or his own eyes, but by Randy’s signal.

The Morgan’s immense rudder is moved...


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pp. 142-146
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