I went on vacation recently to Nantucket. I’d never been before, and I’d always wanted to go. I love islands, and the ocean, and historic preservation, and Nantucket is a perfect Venn diagram of all of those things. It is also one of the places where the threads of my family tree begin. Years ago, I survived a brief but expensive addiction to Ancestry.com. Go ahead. I dare you to walk away once you start. It turned out that some of my ancestors on my father’s side had settled Nantucket, and begun its whaling industry.
Until the discovery of petroleum in the mid-nineteenth century, whale oil from sperm whales was big business. Whales also produced stays for corsets and ambergris for the manufacture of perfume. It was the oil, though, that sent all the ships out of Nantucket Harbor. It lit houses in lanterns and candles, and lubricated the machinery of the world’s factories.
Sailors on whaling ships signed onto a ship and left home for up to five years. By the early 1800s, whales close by in the Atlantic had been overfished. Ships went further and further from home – to the coasts of South America and as far as Japan. Catching and killing a whale meant riding out in a rowboat with nothing but a harpoon and a long knife and riding the back of a creature much larger than the boat. Once harpooned, the whale would bolt, taking the attached rowboat on a hair-raising out-of-control ride of miles at speeds comparable to a speed boat until the whale was tired. Then they had to use the knife to kill it. Once dead, the whale would be towed miles back to the ship with no more power than four men at the oars, raised on scaffolding on its side, and harvested right then and there. It was nasty, smelly, filthy work of days with no sleep and little to eat.
Once the oil made it to the barrels, the ship would go off, in search of more whales. The men occupied themselves with shipboard tasks, scrimshaw, and letters home. Mail was rare and spotty, and most of the time, the sailors had no idea whether their pregnant wives had given birth, whether their parents had survived another month, or whether their houses had burned down with whole families lost. I’m sure they worried about these things, however.
For those of you who only dimly remember Moby Dick from high school, I recommend reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea for some insight into the history of whaling, and how even something as hard as that can get a thousand times worse. A movie of the latter, starring Chris Hemsworth, is coming out in December.
I came back from Nantucket in awe of the toughness of that life, for the sailors as well as their families, for my own ancestors who survived generations this way. My life, by comparison, is both easy and good. I can write and edit and fret in my warm house, clean and dry. My family is close by. I have as much support as I need.
I’m not saying the writing life isn’t hard. I am saying that sometimes it’s good to go out and get a little perspective. Try it.