Leaving Flores

New Bedford whaling ships came in different sizes with different riggings. Smaller two-masted vessels, like brigs and schooners, were used for shorter voyages confined to the Atlantic, while three-masted barks and ships, holding as many as 37 men, were used for longer voyages, like Francisco’s, that would sail beyond the Atlantic, around Cape Horn, and into the Pacific.

Regardless of their rigging, whaling ships were sturdy and built to last. Hewed from live oak timber harvested from nearby forests, it was common for New Bedford whalers to remain in service for as long as seventy-five years. But although they were formidable, they were almost uniformly ugly by the standards of the day, designed not for grace or speed or maneuverability, but to fulfill their unique purpose of hunting, capturing, and rendering whales into oil. Pulled aboard the ship from their small rowboat, Francisco and Manuel were given a brusque tour of a ship that was stout and slovenly, according to Richard Henry Dana, its hull sitting on the water like a squat box. Its silhouette was cluttered by five whaleboats that hung suspended above decks; by blocks, chains, tackle, and scaffolding used to hoist dead whales from the sea, sever their heads, and sheer them of their flesh; and by a massive tryworks, a huge double-chimneyed brick furnace with two iron cauldrons used to boil the whale’s flesh and distill it into oil.

The brothers were led along the deck to the aft, or rear, of the ship and down a narrow stairwell that curved at the bottom where it opened up to the ship’s cavernous hold. Here Francisco and Manuel saw the massive haul of fruits, vegetables, and livestock from Flores being added to the vast stockpile of supplies that had been loaded at New Bedford. There were hundreds of large, iron-hooped barrels, each filed with 268 gallons of seawater to keep them swollen and tight, and each to be filled with whale oil by journey’s end. On top of the barrels were casks filled with thousands of gallons of freshwater. There was a stockpile of firewood, thousands of hooks and staves that would be used to build more barrels, huge caches of harpoons and lances, clothing and sails, charts and navigational equipment, rum and gin and medicine. And enough food to last three years, including about fourteen tons of salt beef and pork and eight tons of bread.

The ship would lumber out to sea laden with these provisions, and would return a few years later equally laden with whale oil, the “gradual consumption of provisions and stores keep[ing] pace with the gradual accumulation of oil,” wrote an Essex sailor in 1820, keeping the ship “always full, or nearly so, all the voyage.”

Francisco and Manuel were then led up one level, just below decks, where the ship was divided into five areas, the first of which was the captain’s cabin, the furthest aft. It was a comfortable and relatively quiet refuge for the man who bore ultimate responsibility for the voyage’s success or failure. The captain didn’t have a bunk but rather a proper bed, one that may have been gimbaled to compensate for the swaying of the ship. He had a bureau for his clothing and possessions, as well as a private commode, or head, in a closet off the bedroom. And he had a day room where he could entertain visiting captains and other guests, furnished with a desk and sofa.

Adjoining the captain’s quarters was the officer’s mess, where the mizzenmast, or rear mast, drove down through the middle of a dining table that was positioned directly beneath a skylight that illuminated the room. And just off the mess were the officers’ quarters. The chief mate was the ship’s superintending officer, responsible for executing the captain’s orders by allotting work and ensuring it was properly done. The only man besides the captain to have private quarters, he had a bunk with space beneath it for a trunk, and a small, wall-mounted writing desk for keeping the daily logbook, which made him directly accountable to the ship’s owners and insurers.

The other officers were housed next door, in another small room just off the mess that contained only bunks and space for the men’s trunks. It was a big step down from the chief mate to the other mates. “The second mate’s is proverbially a dog’s berth,” wrote Dana in Two Years Before the Mast. “He is neither officer nor man.” Though his pay was double that of a common sailor, he did not have the status of an officer. Kept at arm’s length by both the captain and chief mate, the second mate was tasked with enforcing obedience among a crew that did not respect him, while also being forced to work alongside them, reefing and furling sails and staying above decks most of the time. “He is one to whom little is given and of whom much is required,” wrote Dana.

Francisco and Manuel were led next to steerage, a room of a dozen or so bunks that housed the ship’s cabin boy, cook, tradesmen, and boatsteerers, as well as any passengers and guests that might be aboard. Among the tradesmen, the cooper built and maintained casks and tubs and buckets and barrels for storing food, water, whale oil, and spermacetti. The carpenter crafted masts and wedges and maintained the ship’s condition. The sailmaker, if there was one aboard, maintained, repaired, and sewed the sails. And the cook, sometimes working with an assistant, prepared all the ship’s meals, plucking chickens, peeling potatoes, and tending to pigs and other livestock that rooted about the ship until the the day they were added to the menu.

On merchant vessels, the captain might employ a steward, but on whaling voyages he more often employed a cabin boy. Generally between the ages of 8 and 14, the cabin boy was the captain’s personal servant. Often these were Azorean boys, many of whom were informally adopted by and took the last names of their captains, who brought them home to their wives and families at journey’s end and acted as their sponsors, helping them launch new lives in America by securing educational and employment opportunities for them.

The three to six harpooners or boatsteerers also quartered in steerage. These sailors were like junior officers — they made more money than the other sailors but they did not approach the mates in status — and were charged with leading the boats that would leave the ship in pursuit of whales and maintaining the condition of the harpoons and lances that would be used to kill them.

The fourth area Francisco and Manuel saw was the blubber room, a workroom into which large pieces of whale blubber were lowered through a hatch in the deck, cut into smaller pieces, then sent back above decks to be boiled in the tryworks. The room was lit with sunlight filtered through glass prisms driven into and flush with the decks above, the flat round surface drawing in light from above and the prism distributing it throughout the room below.

The tour now took Francisco and Manuel back through steerage and the officers’ mess, back up the narrow aft stairwell to the decks, and then all the way forward along the main deck to a hatch in front of, or before, the mast. The brothers climbed through the hatch down a ladder to the fifth area below decks. Here in the forecastle (sometimes written fo’c’stle and pronounced FOKE-sul or foc’sul), the common sailors, or foremast hands, who were charged with steering the ship, setting sails, raising and dropping anchor, standing watch, and other sundry tasks, would eat, sleep, and take their leisure in a cramped, dimly lit space. The brothers stepped off the ladder into a small, dark, triangular room that would be their home for the next few years. It was crammed with two dozen closely built bunks along the walls, each lined with a mattress filled with mildewed corn husks. The black, grimy floor was strewn with the few possessions sailors owned — sea chests, clothes, shoes, a handful of books, a few musical instruments to help pass the time, and the greasy pans reeking of tainted meats that were the remnants of their paltry, sometimes rancid meals.

Here the grim reality of the journey ahead asserted itself. Franciso and Manuel were leaving behind the only life they had ever known, perhaps never again to see their home, their village, their family. They were trading it all for three or four years of voluntary indentured servitude, working day and night and spending their minimal free time in a cramped, dark hole in the bow of a ship. What lay waiting for them in America at the end of the voyage? Would it be worth it? Would they survive long enough to get there? They brothers almost certainly hadn’t read Moby Dick, but they may have been familiar with the tragic story of the whaleship Essex, which inspired Melville’s 1851 novel. In 1820, the Essex was battered by a white whale, its crew scattered and drowned, the few survivors gone nearly mad having resorted to cannibalism as they drifted in a shattered, sinking whaleboat. But this was only the most dramatic of whaling stories; many more whalemen died of disease, or fell overboard, or drowned when the flukes of a thrashing leviathan destroyed a whaleboat. And what lay waiting for them at journey’s end should they survive? An uncertain future in a vast new country.

But Francisco and Manuel had little time to contemplate the enormity of their decision. As they climbed the ladder out of the darkness of the forecastle and squinted in the bright sunlight, the ship suddenly became a whirlwind of action. Sailors scrambled about the deck in every direction, climbing rigging, grappling with ropes, and setting sails as officers barked a barrage of bewildering commands that were unintelligible to a green hand, and all the more so for being spoken in a foreign tongue.

“There is not so helpless and pitiable an object in the world as a landsman beginning a sailor’s life,” wrote Richard Henry Dana.

As the ship took sail, charging east toward the island of Faial, while crewmen swirled around and above them getting the ship underway, the brothers stood and watched as the island of Flores slipped away into the mist, its white homes shrinking behind green hills that gradually faded to brown, then purple, then gray as they settled into an indistinct mass that floated briefly atop the waves before dropping beneath the horizon.