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Whaling Museum of Cold Spring Harbor

A ‘Bill of Health’ certificate stating that the whaling vessel Splendid is free of plague or disease with 28 men on board, including the master, Richard P. Smith, on Oct. 27, 1853. From the Whaling Museum Collection

By Nomi Dayan

Have you ever been asked to please stand by? Ever told someone not to barge in? Have you hung on to the bitter end, or been given a clean bill of health? If so, you have spoken like a sailor. 

Each type of human activity, noted essayist L. Pearsall Smith, has its own vocabulary. Perhaps this is most evident in the speech of mariners. 

The English language is a strong testament to how humans have been seafarers for millennia, with a multitude of words and phrases having filtered from life at sea to life on land. Today, a surprising number of phrases, words and expressions still have nautical origins, notably from sailing terminology in the 18th and 19th centuries. While some adopted phrases have fallen by the wayside, many expressions in our everyday language are derived from seafaring.

Barge in: Referring to flat-bottomed work boats, which were awkward to control

Bitter end: The last part of a rope attached to a vessel

Clean bill of health: A document certifying a vessel had been inspected and was free from infection

Dead in the water: A sailing ship that has stopped moving

Down the hatch: A transport term for lowering cargo into the hatch and below deck

Figurehead: A carved ornamental figure affixed to the front of a ship

Foul up: To entangle the line

Fudge the books: While the origins of this term is unclear, one theory connects it to a deceitful Captain Fudge (17th century)

Give leeway: To allow extra room for sideways drift of a ship to leeward of the desired course

High and dry: A beached ship 

Jury rig: Makeshift or temporary repairs using available material

Keel over: To capsize, exposing the ship’s keel   

Show the ropes: Train a newcomer in the use of ropes on sailing vessel

Letting the cat out of the bag: One explanation links this phrase to one form of naval punishment where the offender was whipped with a “cat o’ nine tails,” normally kept in a bag  

Passed with flying colors/Show one’s true colors: Refers to identifying flags and pennants of sailing ships

Pipe down: Using the boatswain’s pipe signaling the crew to retire below deck

A new slant: A sailor will put a new slant on things by reducing sails to achieve an optimum angle of heel to avoid the boat from being pulled over

Slush fund: The ship’s cook created a private money reserve by hoarding bits of grease into a slush fund sold to candle makers

Steer clear: Avoid obstacles at sea

Taken aback: Sails pressed back into the mast from a sudden change of wind, stopping forward motion 

The author is the executive director of The Whaling Museum & Education Center of Cold Spring Harbor.

Nomi Dayan gives a lecture at the Whaling Museum in Cold Spring Harbor

By Nomi Dayan

While most people today visit The Whaling Museum while on vacation or during the weekend, there was no vacation or days off for a whaler. Work was paramount for whaling crews. However, a whaler might look forward to the three holidays for which there was a chance of observance while at sea: the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas (with Thanksgiving bring considered the most important holiday at the time).

Captains dictated if and how a holiday was observed. If there were instruments on board, nationalistic music was played and sung. Some crews engaged in whaleboat races for sport. If the captain was feeling generous, a special meal might be extended to even the lowest-ranking crew members. Culinary celebrations gave welcome respite from a monotonous and dreary diet of food that was often infested or spoiled. On a holiday, whalers might enjoy sea pies, a kind of pot pie that sometimes contained dolphin meat, or lobscouse, a stew of salted meat, onions and sea biscuits. Dessert might be mincemeat pie — which consisted of chopped meat, suet, raisins, apples and spices; dandyfunk, a baked mass of hard tack crackers and molasses; or duff, a boiled pudding.

 

Robert Weir aboard the Clara Bell journaled about a distinct feast on July 4th. He wrote how the crew fired salutes and enjoyed “coconuts, roast pig, minced pie, soft tack, ginger cake, pepper sauce, molasses, pepper, rice and pickles — quite extensive for a sailor.”

Aside from the chance of a special treat, July 4th — as with other holidays at sea — was likely to be a disappointment for those hoping for a break from work. Whaler William B. Whitecar Jr. recalled that when a crew member protested spinning yarn on the Fourth of July, the commanding mate’s answer was “Yes — it is fourth of July at home, but not here.”

Many logbooks, official records of daily activity on whaleships, do not document any festivities on this date, instead solely focusing on catching whales. The logbook of the Lafayette off the coast of Peru recorded July 4, 1843, only as an unfruitful day: “So ended this Fourth of July pursuing whales.”

Women who joined their captain-husbands at sea often noted the marked lack of observance of July 4th. Eliza Williams, who sailed with Captain Thomas Williams on the Florida from Massachusetts to the North Pacific and birthed two children during the voyage, wrote in her journal in 1859 in the Shantar Sea: “July 4th … some of the boats, it seems see aplenty of Whales, and once in a while are lucky enough to take one, but not often. Our boats lost two of their Men and that was not all … It doesn’t seem much like the Fourth of July, up here.”

Above, patriotic-themed scrimshaw from the collection of The Whaling Museum in Cold Spring Harbor. Photo from Cindy Grimm

A few years later in 1861, she recorded: “July 4th. Today is Independence. Oh how I would like to be at home and enjoy this day with family and friends. We cannot celebrate it here with any degree of pleasure. Just after dinner, we spoke the bark Monmouth [Cold Spring Harbor ship], Capt. Ormsby … He reported the loss of the clipper ship Polar Star, Capt. Wood, Master. Capt. Ormsby also told us that the Alice Frazier is lost …”

Mary C. Lawrence also described July 4th as being subdued while aboard the Addison with her husband Captain Samuel Lawrence, having sailed from Massachusetts to the Pacific and Arctic during 1856-1860: “The Fourth of July today and the Sabbath. How different our situation from our friends at home! A gale of wind with ice and land to avoid. The ice probably would be a refreshing sight to them. Probably the celebration, if there is any to come off, will take place tomorrow. We had a turkey stuffed and roasted with wild ducks, which are very plenty here. Perhaps tomorrow we may get a whale …”

In 1861, her journal followed the same theme: “July 4th. Minnie [daughter] arose early this morning and hoisted our flag, which was all the celebration we could boast of, as we did not get that whale that we hoped to. A beautiful day, which I improved by washing, after waiting ten days for a clear day.”

Martha Brown of Orient, Long Island, who had been dropped in Hawaii to give birth while her husband and crew continued onward to hunt whales, described her feelings of isolation. She addressed her husband in her journal on July 4th: “Yes the 4 of July has agane passed, and how think you, love, I have spent the day? Not as I did the last in your society, with our Dear little Ella [daughter left at home], but alone. Yes, truly alone. … My thoughts have been far from here today.”

There is great irony in considering how the very workers who powered America’s signature industry could not in reality celebrate its iconic national holiday. On the day when citizens on land joined feasts illuminated by whale candles and enjoyed parades wearing clothing stiffened by whalebone and fabric produced on machinery lubricated by whale oil, the very workers who produced these products were kept working, their eyes focused on catching the next whale.

Nomi Dayan is the executive director at The Whaling Museum & Education Center in Cold Spring Harbor.

A little girl enjoys last year's SOUND-OFF event. Photo from Whaling Museum

The Whaling Museum & Education Center, 301 Main St., Cold Spring Harbor will be hosting its 2nd annual indoor-outdoor event, SOUND-OFF, to help protect the Long Island Sound on Sunday, April 23 from noon to 4 p.m., with activities for all ages including science experiments, water monitoring, a touch tank and more! Bring the whole family to spend a day in picturesque Cold Spring Harbor Village engaging with leaders in the field of conservation to learn how to protect our local waters.

A family attends last year’s SOUND-OFF event. Photo from Whaling Museum

Funded in part by a grant from Long Island Sound Futures Fund, The Whaling Museum will engage people who live and work in the communities surrounding the Sound to foster a new generation of advocates and caretakers. Since 2005, the Futures Fund has provided millions of dollars for hundreds of projects to protect and preserve this critical ecosystem, restoring valuable habitats and treating and cleaning polluted waters.

The Long Island Sound is an amazing natural resource providing economic and recreational benefits to millions of people while also providing habitat for more than 1,200 invertebrates, 170 species of fish and dozens of species of migratory birds.

The main objective of SOUND-OFF is to help visitors understand, protect and advocate for the Sound by promoting a greater awareness of people’s impacts on the Sound’s health, either directly or indirectly. Visitors will leave the event with a stronger understanding of our relationship with the Sound, including gaining knowledge to help monitor its water quality and wildlife inhabitants, and practical ways to contribute to a cleaner Sound.

A little boy touches a crab at last year’s event. File photo

“The Long Island Sound is an essential economic and environmental treasure in need of careful stewardship to protect its integrity,” said New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos.

“The museum’s major goal is to help visitors make informed decisions about our marine environment, and ultimately adopt behaviors to better protect it,” said Nomi Dayan, the museum’s executive director. “Taking place in the spring season, this event is poised to have an impact through the rest of the summer months as Long Islanders get ready to hit the beaches, spend time on boats, and fertilize their lawns,” she added.

Local conservation groups will be on-site to host workshops, conduct experiments and educate the public, including The Waterfront Center, Cornell Cooperative Extension, Huntington-Oyster Bay Audubon Society, Friends of Wildlife and Jump In! Water Campaign. There will be environmental craft stations for children as well as a “Travel the Sound” passport to follow around the museum stations to help children decide on their own Pledge for the Sound.

Admission is free and includes all activities. Held rain or shine. For more information, call 631-367-3418 or visit www.cshwhalingmuseum.org.