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Whaling Ship

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.

Live performance recounts whale ship tragedy

Actors will perform inside an authentic whaleboat that was built in Setauket. Photo from The Whaling Museum

By Ed Blair

Actors will perform inside an authentic whaleboat that was built in Setauket. Photo from The Whaling Museum
Actors will perform inside an authentic whaleboat that was built in Setauket. Photo from The Whaling Museum

On August 12, 1819, the Essex, a small but sturdy whaling ship piloted by 29-year-old Captain George Pollard, slipped her moorings and, with a following wind, sailed purposefully from the busy harbor of Nantucket, Massachusetts. Bound for Cape Horn and then on to the warm waters of  the Pacific, Essex had a record of several financially successful voyages, and her crew of 20 hoped that their expected two-and-a-half-year expedition would be a profitable one. The whaling was indeed good, and, by November of 1820, Essex, now deep in the expansive South Pacific, was well on its way to completing yet another rewarding voyage. And then the unthinkable happened.

While Captain Pollard and his harpooners were on the hunt in their whaleboats, 23-year-old First Mate Owen Chase, aboard the ship, spotted in the distance a huge sperm whale — 85 feet by his reckoning — facing head-on toward the vessel. After spouting a few times, the leviathan inexplicably charged straight for Essex, smashing into her with what Chase later described as “an appalling and tremendous jar.” Not satisfied, the menacing giant, “as if distracted with rage and fury,” struck again, with devastating results. Essex went down, leaving her horror-struck crew to fend for themselves more than a thousand miles from the nearest land.

If the story strikes a familiar note, it is because the tales told by the Essex survivors were incorporated by author Herman Melville in penning his 1851 classic, “Moby-Dick.” Where Melville’s novel ended, however, the harrowing tale of Essex’s forsaken crew had only begun.

It is their incredible story, chronicled by Nathaniel Philbrick in his best seller “In the Heart of the Sea” (and also by Ron Howard in his newly released film by the same title), that The Whaling Museum & Education Center in Cold Spring Harbor is currently offering to share with visitors to the museum on Main Street in Cold Spring Harbor.

On Sunday, Dec. 27, and again on Saturday, Jan. 9, the museum will present college student actors who will perform, in full whaler garb, select scenes from the Philbrick book. Staged “in the round” inside an authentic whaleboat, the performance will offer a unique opportunity to gain insight into Long Island’s rich whaling history. The 30-foot whaleboat, built in an 1800s shipyard in Setauket, is fully equipped with its original gear according to Nomi Dayan, the museum’s executive director.

“While the Ron Howard movie may focus more on the whale’s attack, we differ in that we concentrate on how men pushed to their absolute limits were able to prevail,” she explained. Characterizing the local actors’ performance as “extremely professional,” Dayan added, “Our hope is that the interest aroused by the film stimulates an interest in an important part of Long Island’s past.”

The three-month odyssey of the crew members following the wreck of the Essex was one of torment and privation. At the mercy of the elements, they endured storms and starvation, and their desperation to survive eventually drove them to cannibalism. Eight men lived to tell the tale, Captain Pollard and First Mate Chase among them, and it was their rendering of the story that inspired Melville’s “Moby-Dick.”

The Whaling Museum & Education Center of Cold Spring Harbor is located at 279 Main Street. Both performances of the selected readings will start at 7 p.m. and will be followed by a question-and-answer session and include a wine and cheese reception as well as exhibit viewing. Seating is limited to 40 guests for each performance. Tickets, which are $20 per person and $35 per couple, can be reserved online at www.cshwhalingmuseum.org or by calling 631-367-3418.