William, March 1887
“We’re nearing Cape Horn,” Thomas walked up to where William leaned over the rail along the deck of the Vance Thurgood. “See the water?”
Pushing back a few strands of light brown hair—it’d grown longer since they set sail–William watched as tiny white caps cascaded over their crests like so many falling mountain peaks. Nodding, he replied, “Maybe something interesting will happen for once.” The ship had, at first, been a place of excitement for William. He’d been vaguely familiar with ships all his life, growing up so near the seaport. However, his father had never brought him aboard the Vance Thurgood, or any other whaling ship. The deck wasn’t so different from most other ships, except for the tryworks, where the whale blubber would be cooked down into oil, if and when they managed to catch a whale.
Davits, or wooden arms, arched over the sides of the deck. On many ships, these held smaller boats, and in the case of a whaling vessel that was no different. The whalers would be lowered to the water using pulleys that hung from the davits. So too would platforms be hung so that the crew could move alongside the ship during the cutting in. William had once asked his father to describe the process. “Imagine dozens of men,” his father had begun, “crawling all over these platforms like ants on a log newly rolled over, carving the whale into smaller pieces so as to get it on board the ship. If you think harpoons are sharp, they’re nothing to the tools used for the cutting-in.” He still had not witnessed a cutting-in, so had only the memory of his father’s description to slake his curiosity.
Below deck, the whaling ship had a forecastle, or fo’c’sle as it was commonly called, which was located toward the bow, and that’s where the crew ate every day and slept every night. Upon first boarding the ship, William thought it seemed bigger than he’d imagined—now it seemed tight and cramped after six months at sea. Moving aft below deck were the cabins, and yet another level below contained such things as the blubber room and ballast. He’d thoroughly explored all the nooks and crannies of the ship where he had access, and the novelty of being at sea had worn off months ago.
The wind brought his thoughts back to the present as it caused ropes to snap taut against the masts. He could hear the ship creak and groan against the rudder and idly wondered how much wind it would take to cause the rudder to snap. The wind smelled saltier too, almost as though William had stuck his head into the waves but could still draw breath. Even without the approaching wall of cloud-cover, he could tell a storm was indeed fast approaching.
“I know you think it was a waste of time coming along,” Thomas was saying, “but it will get more exciting once we get around to the Pacific and can start actually working.”
Scoffing in reply, William straightened. He was taller than his friend by almost a head. “Did you forget why we’re here? Not for whales. For my father.”
Thomas held his hands up in surrender and shook his head. “I didn’t forget. Quiet about it though.” He nodded aft, past William’s shoulder.
Turning, William spotted Tobias, the first mate. He frequently looked down his perfectly straight nose at everyone else on board, and now was no exception. He’d made William’s list of people to avoid months ago. Sighing, William replied, “Fine. Maybe we’ll at least hit a storm and then I’ll have some repairs to make. I need to do something.” He glanced at the sky. The sun was still shining but he knew from his father’s tales that near to the Cape, the weather could change at the drop of a hat. The last six months had been spent sailing south. They’d stopped once in South Carolina for three days, where William had spent almost the entirety of his time at a local bethel, a sort of library where sailors could rest from their travels without worrying about engaging in less virtuous endeavors. Thomas suggested that they might glean some information if they went with the others to a tavern, but William wasn’t keen on wasting what little money he had on drink.
Instead, they’d written letters home to Catherine. William’s missive was short as he’d been unwilling to admit to finding out nothing thus far regarding their father’s death. Now, as they approached a stretch of water most sailors tried to avoid, he wished he’d found out something. “What if our ship is taken and I die without ever finding out who killed my father?” William turned back to the water, staring into the grey-blue and vast beyond.
“You’d be in no worse shape than you’re in now. Besides, storms around these parts are likely. Not much we can do to avoid them and I’d be surprised if we didn’t hit any at all. But just stay below deck when you’re not on watch, Greenhand,” he teased. Thomas had tried to teach his friend the finer points of navigating and steering the ship, but to no avail. Opportunities for a cooper who served also as an oarsman were rare.
“That seems boring.” William sighed even as the wind whipped up around him, filling the sails. The ship lurched forward and he staggered a couple of steps.
“Johnson,” Tobias called, “looks like you still don’t have your sea legs!” he chortled before continuing toward the bow.
I wish I could move like him aboard the ship. I might, if I didn’t have to go below deck every time we reach rough waters. He said nothing in return to Tobias, as usual. He wasn’t here for an argument, William reminded himself, as he turned to descend the steep and narrow stairs that led below deck.
Stooping to walk the confining corridor, he made his way toward the fo’c’sle. Walking much of the length of the ship didn’t take long, particularly when everyone else was already above deck. His cabin, as he thought of it, was shared with four other men; Thomas, who slept on the bunk above his, and a man named Michael and another named Walter. It wasn’t even a room, but rather a bank of bunks, separated by the rest of the fo’c’sle by a navy canvas curtain. He barely spoke to the other two men, as he thus far knew little about who he might trust beyond his friend from home.
Thomas continually reminded him that he’d have to start talking to the others if he wanted to find out what happened to his father. None of their cabin mates were old enough to have been on board then, though, so he doubted there was much sense in getting to be friends with them. One of the harpooners was definitely old enough—his hair was so white that on a cloudy day, William almost couldn’t see it—and of course he knew Tobias and David, the first and second mates, had been aboard ten years ago when his father died. Aside from them, that left only Captain Matthews that he knew of, but he supposed there might be others. The crew itself was fairly small with only twenty-six men including the Captain and mates.
Talking with the crew members wasn’t easy. As cooper, his work didn’t necessarily align with theirs so there wasn’t the same sense of camaraderie that Thomas had found in the last half year. What was more was that coopers made almost as much as mates when it was time to split the ship’s profits. For this voyage, he would take home roughly one fiftieth of the ship’s profits, whereas much of the crew were lucky to see half of that. He had to find some way to close the distance between himself and the rest of the crew, but right now, all William could think about was the storm raging against the outside of the ship.
The sun was hidden now behind the growing clouds, but William could still tell that it was late afternoon. Might as well try to sleep a bit before the watch bell rings. Even if a storm hit, he doubted he would be excused from his usual shift. He stretched out on his bunk–it always felt good to lie down after walking around below deck. Even though his feet hung over the end, there wasn’t anything forcing him into a stooped position. Thankfully, the deck below this one, where he would be constructing most of the barrels, was a bit roomier.
He stared at the bottom of Thomas’ bunk. The blank, almost white space allowed his mind to wander. He thought about his father and tried to picture him aboard the Vance Thurgood. Upon coming aboard the ship, he’d asked for his father’s bunk, but another sailor already claimed it. The bunks were all the same, except some featured striped mattresses while others were solid colors. He’d hoped though that the connection to his father would strengthen his resolve.
William fidgeted, even as the ship moved around him with each rise and fall though the unease of the ocean had little to do with his restlessness. “Six months at sea and I’ve learned nothing,” he muttered to no one in particular.
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” a voice argued.
William sat up so quickly he cracked his head into the bottom of Thomas’ bunk. He cussed, winced and pressed his palm to his forehead. “It’s rude to sneak up on people,” he began to suggest before looking to see who it was. “Oh, Michael…nevermind. I…sorry.”
Michael was short and William often thought he must have been born to be aboard a ship, where he didn’t have to duck at all to get through the tight spaces. His shoulders were nearly as broad as the corridor, which William thought rather fitting as winding the winch that lifted the anchor was typically left to him. Michael shook his head and moved to sit on his own bunk.
“Aren’t you on watch?” William rubbed his head where he could already feel a bump forming.
Nodding, he answered, “I am, but Thomas asked me to come and check on you. He said you seemed unsteady. Well, more than usual. He’s taking over part of my shift.”
Why didn’t Thomas come down himself? Could it be that he was regretting bringing me aboard, as they’d thus far found out nothing surrounding a death that occurred so long ago? Twelve years, to be exact. “Ah. Well, I’m not all that good at sailing.”
“Most of the lads aboard the Thurgood have been sailing since they could walk.” He tends to exaggerate, William cautioned himself silently. “At any rate,” Michael continued, “you wouldn’t want to learn how to bring a whale in, would you? The Captain would never go for sending you out on a boat but…if you’re bored, you could help with the cutting in when we catch one.” The ship rocked hard to port. William rolled back and Michael had to brace himself to keep from falling off of his bunk. “Then again, perhaps you’ll have repairs to make before long.”
William felt bad hoping that there’d be something to fix. He’d had work once in the last half year, and it was just to strengthen a weak board. Three nails had done the trick. Three nails and ten minutes. If they’d been catching whales, he’d be busy. Before a whaling ship left the seaport, most of the barrels were taken apart for easier storage. As whales were caught and blubber cooked down into oil, those barrels had to be put back together—and it would take a cooper’s skill to complete the task. Likewise, water barrels would be used and so the blubber casks would replace them as the ship’s ballast throughout the journey, and the water barrels would be disassembled. “Maybe you’re right. I’ll ask the Captain about it after we get out of this storm.”
“It hasn’t even really hit yet,” Michael stood and offered a dark grin before he left.
Lying back down, William thought about what might be the best way to approach Captain Matthews.