Moby Dick, Chapter Two: Euroclydon, The Northeast Wind

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No, I did not practice yoga here today.  I practiced here three days ago.  And it was glorious.  The Low Point, Man-O-War Cay, Abacos, The Bahamas

My goodness it is blowing here today!  Early this morning, Euroclydon, the Northeast wind, howled in at about 30 knots and spun us completely round on anchor.  We are now nose to the north and nothing not nailed, screwed, or lashed down above board will stay put.  The wind stole our nylon purple shopping bag and sent it floating past the boat behind us.  Our friend, Muffin, who lives on that boat, rescued and delivered it to us at about 9.  Ten minutes later, it was in the water again, and Ryan had to go after it in the dinghy. 

Defying the gale, I practiced yoga on the bow this morning.  The wind tore my mat out from under my feet and tried to yank it into the water.  I finally threw it down the forward hatch.  Sun salutations went okay, but standing poses were hard.  Triangle was the most difficult. I didn’t even attempt one-footed forms, like tree or dancer.  I did side plank with my feet propped against the hatch, which seemed like cheating, but really was pretty impressive, because the wind kept trying to knock me down and I held out for ten breaths.  Chair was awkward, since I had to plant my feet wide apart to stay upright on the foredeck, which is not flat but slightly hill-shaped.  If I broke a sweat, which I usually do, the wind whisked it off my skin before I noticed.

I found it impossible to relax during corpse pose.  I tried to imagine myself dead, the flesh falling off my bones and all my muscles falling slack.  Usually I come up with a lovely image of myself in a white shroud, surrounded by candles and flowers in an oval, narrow cave with lovely ochre walls, and I feel quite serene contemplating myself while ever thought falls away from my mind.  But this time I just thought, death, death, death and about how hideous I will look when I am dead, my cheeks all saggy and my body heavier than ever.  Narcissism really gets in way of inner peace. 

Euroclydon will not stop blowing.  The long leaves of the coconut palms are rustling furiously, and their trunks, like the many breasted Lady of Ephesus, are leaning, perilously loaded with green globes.  The coconut gives life and takes it away.  With a machete, one could live a long time without money on these islands, where the coconuts litter the ground.  Locals never tire of telling me that more people die from getting hit on the head with a coconut than by being struck by lightning. 

We have three coconuts awaiting the machete in our dinghy.  We made the rookie mistake of opening a coconut on board, and had to spend half a day scrubbing and bleaching the stains that the pith created in the gel coat.  The fibers are very good to plant in, as they have nutrients, but they make a terrible mess.  When the wind dies down we might take the three coconuts to the beach and whack away at them.  Fresh coconut tastes divine. But we are probably too lazy to do that today.  In fact we have been too lazy to whack them for the last ten days or so.  Lucky for us, the wind is going to blow into next week.

Euroclydon has been pushing Sophia back and forth on her anchor lines like a kite, rolling us this way and that.  A satellite image shows the blow bearing down on us as the whip-like tail of a great white swirl at the center of the Atlantic ocean.   I’m sitting, safe and sound, but shivering, on the comfortable veranda of the Hope Town Inn and Marina. A girl in jeans and jacket just slapped past in thongs, complaining, “It’s soooooo cold!  I’m not used to this.”

2981517e808ad36fbe4154803daa15baIn chapter two of Moby Dick, Ishmael quits “Manhatto” and arrives in New Bedford, just missing the last boat to Nantucket for the next three days.  He searches for shelter on a “very dark and dismal night, bitingly cold and cheerless.”  In a funny moment, he stumbles into an ash-box at the door of a Black church, where he sees “a hundred back faces” and “a black Angel of Doom” preaching on “the blackness of darkness, and weeping and wailing and teeth-gnashing.”  Ishmael backs away from this “wretched entertainment” at the bar he’s named “The Trap.”  That’s the joke.  But the meditation on blackness here is a puzzler.

He wanders on and stops in front of the Spouter Inn, a wooden house with a sign that speaks ominously of coffins and spouters, also known as whales.  It’s just drab and dreary enough to appeal to our hero,  standing as it does on a

sharp bleak corner where that tempestuous wind Euroclydon kept up a worse howling than ever it did about poor Paul’s tossed craft.

Ishmael is thinking of that story in Acts, where the tempestuous northeast wind stirs up a storm that rages for two weeks, nearly sinking the vessel that carries the Apostle as a prisoner to Rome.  After three days, Paul tells the sailors not to worry, because an angel stood next to him in the night and promised that God will protect them all.   Euroclydon rages on 11 more days, and the sailors throw things off the boat, and generally freak out.  It’s one of the Bible’s best sea tales.  Ishmael mixes it up with the saga of Lazarus, who may or may not actually be in the street by the side of the Spouter Inn:

Poor Lazarus there, chattering his teeth against the curbstone for his pillow, and shaking off his tatters with his shivering, he might plug up both ears with rags, and put a corn-cob pipe into his mouth, and ye that would not keep our the tempestuous Euroclydon. 

Perhaps Ishmael is just imagining him there, thinking as he is about the myth of Paul, who heals many sick people after his boat runs aground at Malta.  The foreshadowing is pretty straightforward.  We are to expect a storm at sea and a miraculous survival.  But the guy who rises from the dead, poor Lazarus, does not seem to be doing so well.  And then there is the fact that Ishmael has just referred to a church as a trap.  Juicy stuff for the atheist reader!

Throughout the chapter Ishmael has been thinking about the difference between being on the inside or outside of warm houses in cold climates. He passes by “The Crossed Harpoons” and the “Sword-Fish Inn,” and the sight of the jolly warmth within them only seems to underline his own misery.  Now standing before a “palsied” house that looks “as if it might have been carted here from the ruins of some burnt district,” (perhaps a reference to Gommorah, with which Ishmael associates the ash-box at the Trap) he considers that Euroclydon might be experienced as a “pleasant zephyr to any one in-doors, with his feet on the hob quietly toasting for bed.”   The opposite viewpoint is not, as you might expect, from the cold outside looking in at the warmth, but rather from the inside looking out through a “sashless window, where the frost is on both sides, and of which the wight Death is the only glazier.”

Attempting, perhaps,  to make light of this dark thought, Ishmael compares his body to a frigid house and his eyes to the panes that Death has fashioned:

What a pity they didn’t stop up the chinks and crannies though, and thrust in a little lint here and there.  But it’s too late to make any improvements now.  The universe is finished; the copestone is on, and the chips were carted off a million years ago.

It’s witty but bleak, finally, and myopic.  It is here that Ishmael evokes the image of Lazarus, chattering his teeth against the curbstone.  He rouses himself with a pun on blubbering and whaling, and ventures into the inn. 

If Euroclydon can make even the Bahamas feel cold, imagine what it does in New England, or Pittsburgh, or even as far south as Richmond, where my son proposes to go for New Year’s Eve?

B has lived for short periods on the street before, and goes about in ragged clothes. A friend took pity on him and gave him a pair of shoes.  Another kind soul presented him with some sturdy boots.  He won’t accept new shoes from me.  Nor can he buy them for himself. 

No, he doesn’t take drugs.  In fact, I wish he would.  If he would only take the medication that three different psychiatrists have recommended, he would feel better, steadier, calmer.  But he is afraid of side effects, I guess.  I’m not sure. 

When I think about Ishmael as a young man alone, depressed, stuck in his head, a person who could be my own child, alone, in the wilderness, forlorn, lost, friendless, cold, meditating on death—I know this is not a conventional way to read the novel, but it is the way I come at it—I worry. Ishmael is  just a character in a novel, I tell myself, get a grip!  But what can I do?  I’m like the mother who sends a text to her son, “start worrying, details to follow…”

Q: What’s the difference between a Rottweiler and a Norwegian mother? A: Eventually, the Rottweiler lets go.

Reading Melville at Sea: The Project

The Project:

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My son, B, is 24 and Moby Dick is his favorite book.  Since he was about 12, he has carried a small, tattered copy of the novel in his back pocket everywhere.  He took it with him to college in Washington State and Virginia.  He lugged it through Qatar and Nepal.  He brought it to California, Idaho, and to Pennsylvania.  Although he has read the big book at least once straight through, he often opens it at random and takes whatever it offers him, reading out of curiosity, boredom, or love.  Had he had owned a similarly sized Lord of the Rings, it very likely would have served him as Melville’s novel has, in the ways a Bible may have served you: as an oracle, a source of comfort, inspiration, rage, or despair, a talisman, a pillow, a hammer, a protection for the heart in lieu of battle armor, or a handy object with which to beat yourself on the head or to hurl across the room.

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Sailing Vessel Sophia at Man-O-War, Abaco, Bahamas, where this project began.

Like the Odyssey, the Aeneid, The Fairie Queene, and Paradise Lost,  Moby Dick is an epic, a work of art that encompass the most treasured elements of the wisdom, history, science, and art of the culture in which it has flourished.  An epic features a remarkable hero who undertakes a journey on which he or she (okay, let’s just say we’re still waiting for her) performs valorous deeds that demonstrate or develop the wayfarer’s extra-ordinary nature.  There are certain stylistic elements that belong to all epics, such as an invocation to muses or deities, and the elaborate comparison called an “epic simile.”

Melville creates an epic simile in Moby Dick‘s first chapter.  The narrator, who has asked us to call him Ishmael—the name of Abraham’s outcast son with the slave woman Hagar, the child who wanders the wilderness—declares that his longing to go to sea is like the ocean reverie that fixes “thousands upon thousands of men,” like the instinct of all country-walkers to always head towards water, like the need of romantic artists to include a “magic stream” in every landscape, like the urge that draws people across vast distances to Niagara, and like the drive of the imprudent “poor poet of Tennessee” to Rockaway Beach instead of to a coat maker.   Ishmael compares his longing to go to sea to the veneration of the Persians and the Greeks for the ocean.  Finally, he insists that it is like the tormenting desire of Narcissus, the youth who drowned because he could not tear himself away from his own watery reflection.

Melville’s epic similes come in prose, not poetry, obviously, as Moby Dick is the first epic novel, still a relatively new form of literature when it appeared in the 19th century.  You might say that the novel as a form reached its mature, even its greatest, iteration in Melville’s epic, which not only encompasses all that has flowered in the civilizations before it, but also expresses what is great in its own time and place, the industrialized New World, the brash, young United States, in a marvelous bloom that future epics will emulate in turn.  As works of art go, it’s hard to imagine a better book that a young American could hit upon for a reference point and friend of spirit. 

As a mother, I am pleased with B’s choice of a book to guide or to drag along with him through life.  As a scholar and former university professor of epic poetry and the early novel in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century English literature, I am ashamed to confess that I have never read Moby Dick to the end.  I can therefore say little about what my son admires in the Great Book, arguably not just my nation’s, but modernity’s greatest expression.  You may object, pointing to Ulysses, the more recent epic also pattered on Homer’s lost sailor. You might argue that Joyce’s novel is the novel’s greatest iteration and an even more impressive epic, because more modern.  Perhaps my son’s Irish blood will drive him through that one soon.  I hope so. 

The point of this project, however, is to understand what it is about Ishmael’s story that has so tantalized my son, and so perhaps to fathom the inscrutable lad himself, in the hopes of being a better parent to him.  What in this book has fixated my son, a child of the internet and video games and the economic depression of the late 20th and early 21st century?  Why Melville and why Ishmael, who grasps after what Narcissus fell in love with, in Ishmael’s words: the “ungraspable phantom of life”? That unstable image, Ishmael asserts, is the one that “we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans.”  Do we all see this this, and is this the image of ourselves?  What does this have to do with my son’s love for Moby Dick?  Will I understand him better if I scrutinize this novel, this his personal Bible?

My project, then, deeply personal and utterly divorced from the politics that drove me from academia five years ago.  Having lately taken to sea myself, for reasons I cannot entirely explain, this project is also an effort “grin and bear”  my own transition “from schoolmaster to sailor,” a metamorphosis that Ishmael also finds difficult, or “keen.”  As an agnostic, which is nothing more than a non-committing atheist, I will keep my commentary on this Bible, Moby Dick,  as a sort of religious duty, covering one chapter every day.   Perhaps by doing so I will grasp something about my son that has so far eluded me.  If not, I hope I will at least reach towards a better understanding of my own relationship to him.  Ishmael implies that narcissistic desire, which drives him to sea, is universal,  the root of all journeys of exploration, all culture, all art. Like Ishmael, like Narcissus, in this effort I am searching for myself. But as Melville suggests, what we are chasing after may be no more or less than “one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.” 

Some Scenes from the Passage

Photos and videos from our trip down to the Abacos.

Here are a few shots of Sophia from our initial journey down to the Bahamas.  For a description of some exciting times during that passage, check out “The Passage.”  If you’re interested in checking out the boat down below, go to “Sophia Down Below.”

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Sophia, a 36-foot Sabre, off the coast of North Carolina, the beginning of our passage down to Abaco.

Here’s a video I shot on the second day of the passage:

 

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Donny H., who crewed on Seahorse and helped all of us immensely, pours out the first celebratory glass of champage!  We made it!
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At Marsh Harbor, Abaco.

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Travis, Skipper of Seahorse, and Ryan, Skipper of Sophia, conferring about the next destination.

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Seahorse, in the foreground, and Sophia, in the distance, at Hopetown.

 

Postscript on “The Passage”

Ryan read my description of our passage–my first, his sixth or seventh–and said I way over exaggerated the drama.  “But I told a good story!” I protested.   Here is what he has to say about it:

There is nothing about this boat that is poorly maintained or ill-equipped. Things do happen when out sailing — even to well found vessels. Anyone who thinks otherwise is not realistic. This was one of the best passages I have ever done. The weather was mostly good and we sailed practically the whole thing on one tack. It got a little windy at times but the boat handled it beautifully. It was a great passage.

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Mary keeps threatening to send me photos of our boat, Sophia (a Sabre 36) via email.  I think she’s having too much fun back in Brevard to get round to it.  No worries. I’ll keep posting pictures of her Bruce Roberts 43, Seahorse, in the Sargasso Sea!

 

 

P.S.  I also think it was a great passage.

The Passage

How do you sail a five-day passage 300 miles off the coast in the Atlantic ocean?  It’s not for the faint of heart.  Here’s how the instrument panel recorded our journey: IMG_4882

 It really wasn’t that bad.  We had good weather, and Sophia sails herself, practically, she is so well-balanced.  When going to windward, even in 25 knot winds, you can simply set the wheel where you want it, and it will not move.  The boat rounds up miraculously and keeps herself on course.  Naturally, the winds clock around and you have to be vigilant.   And going downwind, it’s best to put the boat on autopilot, our lovely friend, which steers much more efficiently than a human.

That lovely friend failed after two days at sea, along with all of our other electronics, including the VHF and SSB radios.  For a few agonizing hours, we couldn’t hail our beautiful buddy boat, Seahorse (A Bruce Roberts 43) , or anyone else for that matter.

We were sailing in the Sargasso Sea, and Seahorse had galloped  about five miles ahead during the second night.  Larger and heavier than Sophia, she easily made 9 knots, while we had to reef in our sails and keep to a safer, slower speed, about 6, under those conditions.  

Seahorse sailing off into the sunset the night we lost power

After our friends lost sight of our mast light, they took down some sails and waited for us, but we didn’t know it, since all of our communications systems were down.  

I was on watch while Ryan dozed below, and waves kept breaking across the bow.  It was exhilarating, yes.   There is something incredibly awe-inspiring about being the only person awake on a vessel so far out to sea, where you are not just under, but quite obviously within, the bright tapestry of the Milky Way above, and there is no way to discern the line where the stars begin at the edge of the sea.  I basked in the hugeness and beauty of the universe, and felt intensely alive.

But I have to admit that I also registered a steady and palpable current of sheer terror.  That night when the radios failed and the sea roared up and over the dodger and poured straight down into the galley, I decided it was time to wake Ryan.  “I think we might need to reef some sails,” I said.   “And you might want to put your foul weather gear on, since it’s pretty wet out here.”  Not exactly to my relief, he agreed immediately that it was time to reef, and helped me to do it.   In my sleep-deprived frenzy I steered up straight into irons, and we ended up having to tack out of it and sail in the opposite direction until we got going fast enough to tack back on course. We lost about an hour, I guess.  Ryan stayed up with me until we both settled down and Sophia regained a safe speed on autopilot.  Then he returned to bed.   

Did I mention we rigged up a lee-cloth on the starboard settee for sleeping while passaging?  It got quite stuffy down there after four days at sea, but it was still incredibly comfortable to be in it.  The boat rocks back and forth like a cradle, and you feel wonderfully warm and secure and happy, even if the winds are screaming above.   That is where Ryan went.

I hunkered down again under the dodger (so named because you crouch there, dodging waves? I wondered) and attempted to quiet my mind by reading.  I set a timer on my watch to alert me at 13 minute intervals, when I got up, stretched, checked the instrument panels, peered out into the night in all four directions, and curled up again.  We still hadn’t made contact with Seahorse, and there was nothing to do but sail on.  The instruments were still working, and we had an Automatic Identification System that also functioned, and an operating bilge pump.  It had failed, frighteningly, along with the manual backup, earlier in the journey, but Ryan fixed it.   I watched the dawn unfold across the sea and sky, and welcomed the sun.  When Ryan awoke again we made coffee and soon spotted Seahorse, a tiny stick against the horizon.  We motor-sailed until we caught up to them, and then put our heads together about the problem, which turned out to be electric.

We had run our batteries down too far, and they were not charging, even with the motor on.  The Honda 2000 came to our rescue. Ryan hauled it up to the foredeck, plugged it in, and slowly but surely the house batteries began to fill up again.   After they got high enough to hold a charge, the VHF and SSB radio came back on again.   Of course the latter blew up again, after we made land, but that’s another story, and not as interesting.

Faithful Seahorse stayed closer to us for the rest of the journey.