Nantucket Bound

How Melville’s Ishmael got from Manhattan to New Bedford is unclear; but for the record I drove to Hyannis, taking the Bourne Bridge across the Cape Cod Canal and pulling into the Yarmouth lot shortly before eleven o’clock on a crisp clear Friday autumn morning. The shuttle driver dropped me off at the dock just in time for me to purchase my ticket for the high-speed ferry to Nantucket.

Onboard the M/V Iyanough I stowed my bag and elbowed my way through the mass of humanity in the main cabin to the upper deck, where I found an open spot on the fantail. I stood at the head of the port ladder and surveyed the harbor as the boat’s engines kicked in. Slowly we backed out of our berth and turned toward the channel that led to the open sea.

“At last, passage paid, and luggage safe, we stood onboard the schooner,” Ishmael tells us. “Gaining more open water, the bracing breeze waxed fresh, the little Moss tossed the quick foam from her bows, as a young colt his snortings.”

As we slid into open water, the helmsman eased open the throttle. When we approached 35 knots, a roostertail of fine white spray spewed from the stern. Through this mist in the midday sun, ephemeral rainbows skirted the air.

“Rainbows to do not visit the clear air; they only irradiate vapor,” Ishmael observes. “And so, through all the thick mists of the dim doubts in my mind, divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling my fog with a heavenly ray.”

The long dark ribbon of cape stretched across the horizon, dotted here and there with fixed white pixels: tiny man-made structures resting on this spit of land. Below the ribbon lay the grey-green white-capped sea. You could tell where the sea ended and the land began from the way the distant whitecaps faded and formed against the backdrop of the fixed white houses.

My glasses fogged with salt spray. I licked my lips and tasted the salty sharpness. I turned my collar up against the wind and felt the dampness of the sea on my back.

“How I snuffed that Tartar air!” Ishmael exclaims. “On, on we flew; and our offing gained, the Moss did homage to the blast, ducked and dived her brows as a slave before the Sultan. Sideways leaning, we sideways darted; every rope yarn tingling like a wire…”

As we dipped and rolled through the waves, I surveyed the cast of humanity sprawled before my eyes: older men, grey-haired, baseball caps pulled down low on their foreheads to brace their eyes against the sun and spray; newspapers roughly folded and stuffed into back pockets of faded blue jeans; spotless tennis shoes. Young men sporting close-cropped reddish-brown hair, wrap-around sunglasses, hooded fleeces, pressed white Bermuda shorts, moccasins on sockless tanned feet.

“Methinks I have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death,” Ishmael muses. “Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. Methinks that my body is but the lees of my better being.”

Older women, thin, with sparkling eyes and salt-and-pepper hair, close-cropped; bandanas wrapped round their necks; cardigans, slacks. Young women, hair billowing like auburn sails in the wind, peacoats buttoned down over striped sailor’s jerseys, each one clutching an iPhone or equivalent. One bald-headed man hung by the railing off to port, coughing into the wind. A little curly-haired girl wearing a pink baseball cap and jersey to match held her mother’s hand.

As we approached the island, the ferry slipped between the red and green nuns and cans that marked the channel; while on either side a string of underwater rocks rose to form parallel jetties. Suddenly off to starboard a stunted lighthouse hove into view. We rolled past sloops and ketches reefed at their moorings. All along the wharf tiny houses stood in a row, grey-shakes with white trim. Up on the hill the golden dome of a church mushroomed above the roofs and widow walks.

“Nothing more happened on the passage worthy the mentioning: so, after a fine run, we safely arrived in Nantucket.”

Cormorants watched in silence while we slipped into our berth. The ferry shuddered as it struck the fenders at the dock, then stood still. The gangway dropped with a metallic clang, and we stepped onto solid ground once again.

I collected my bag and found my way into the cobblestone street. After a brief walk I retired to a raised concrete curb. As I took stock of my next steps, a white van with the words “Nantucket Inn” stenciled on its door crept by. I flagged down the driver and caught a ride to what would be my lodging for our weekend gam.

The Sensual Sea

When I was young, shortly after I turned twenty, I shipped out of Boston on a cutter bound for thirty-six days in the north Atlantic.  On the way out, we lay over for a night in St. Johns.  From the flying bridge I still recall seeing the red cliffs of Newfoundland rising suddenly out of the sea in the morning sun, still remember slipping through the tight channel into the calm water of the cozy port, still picture the quaint weathered houses packed side by side along the terraced streets above the harbor.

Later, on southern voyages, I would survey the swells of the Caribbean for giant sea turtles while flying fish darted out from the bow as it surged through the blue water.  Watching the swells rise and fall away at your feet, you understood what sailors meant when they said that the sea breathed.

Hemingway wrote that la mar is what the Cuban pescadores call the sea when they love her.  For his old man, the sea was always feminine, even though in the Spanish language the sea is traditionally masculine, el mar.  “The old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them.”

The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda incorporated sensual sea imagery into many of his compositions.  Here is an excerpt from his piece Oda al Mar (Ode to the Sea):

El mar
y cuánto mar
se sale de sí mismo
a cada rato,
dice que sí, que no,
que no, que no, que no,
dice que si, en azul,
en espuma, en galope,
dice que no, que no.
No puede estarse quieto,
me llamo mar, repite
pegando en una piedra
sin lograr convencerla —

“The sea moves in and out of itself each moment, saying first yes, then no; then no, no, no; then yes, in blue, in churning foam; then no, no. The sea can’t stay still: ‘My name is Sea’ it repeats, slapping against the rocks without convincing them.”

As a young man, Melville shipped out of Nantucket on a whaler and didn’t return for three years.  His nautical experiences aboard the Acushnet formed the basis for many of the narrative scenes in Moby Dick.  Here he records an impression of the sea in a chapter entitled “The Symphony”:

It was a clear steel-blue day.  The firmaments of air and sea were hardly separable in that all-pervading azure; only, the pensive air was transparently pure and soft, with a woman’s look, and the robust and man-like sea heaved with long, strong, lingering swells, as Samson’s chest in his sleep.

Hither, and thither, on high, glided the snow-white wings of small, unspeckled birds; these were the gentle thoughts of the feminine air; but to and fro in the deeps, far down in the bottomless blue, rushed mighty leviathans, sword-fish, and sharks; and these were the strong, troubled, murderous thinkings of the masculine sea.

But though thus contrasting within, the contrast was only in shades and shadows without; those two seemed one; it was only the sex, as it were, that distinguished them.

Aloft, like a royal czar and kind, the sun seemed giving this gentle air to this bold and rolling sea; even as bride to groom.  And at the girdling line of the horizon, a soft and tremulous motion—most seen here at the equator—denoted the fond, throbbing trust, the loving alarms, with which the poor bride gave her bosom away.

For those inclined to go down to the sea in boats, masculine or feminine, there is nothing asexual about the sea.