PEMcast Episode 17: Life at Sea Transcript
Dinah: OK, can you hear me?
Dan: I can hear you. Can you hear me?
Dinah: I can hear you. Amazing.
Dan: I had to get my headphones and literally I ran down two flights of stairs and yanked them off of my daughter’s head.
Chip: Dan Finamore is PEM’s Curator of Maritime Art and History.
Dan: The kids are trapped in the house. I think it’s fair to say it’s driving them crazy. My 15-year-old son insists this is not a school day...And so far, he’s winning that battle.
Chip: At PEM, Dan oversees one of the country’s oldest and most important Maritime collections. Because of the pandemic, Dan has had to do this from home.
Dinah So, this is simple. I would just love you to Tell story of the flag
Dan. OK. So, I had to get out of the house. So I headed down to the waterfront. I got down there, saw the flagpole and saw that...the Park Service was flying a bright solid yellow flag,
Chip: And for those of us who aren’t school in the language of international maritime signal flags, a yellow flag stands for the letter “Q”...also known as Quebec or more interestingly, Quarantine.
Dan: So, the park service staff that decided to fly that flag, I think they are sending a positive message to the people of Salem and wishing us all well and good health.
-- SOUND OF WAVES --
Dinah: OK, so can you tell me your name and title again?
John: My name is John Newman. I’m the ship rigger and first mate on the Friendship of Salem, a historic replica of the 1797 Salem merchant ship.
Dinah: John and I are standing in front of a wet and rainy Salem Harbor. Our masks make it difficult to talk and even more difficult to record.
John: We’re about to take down our quarantine flag because it’s an old, old antique flag and there’s a storm coming.
John: It's kind of like a steady reminder that these are no ordinary times. I think we need the reminder a little. Basic precautions that everybody can take.
-- WIND, WATER AND BIRD SOUNDS --
Dinah: From the windy harbor in Salem, Massachusetts, This is the PEMcast.
-- MUSICAL INTERLUDE --
Dinah: As of this recording we are in our third month of the COVID-19 quarantine.
Chip: Those of us fortunate enough to stay home, are still adjusting to the new normal of stocking our shelves and waiting it out.... Trying to find ways to keep ourselves active both physically and mentally.
Dan It's a lot like the preparations and then the experience of being at sea.
Chip: As someone who can ID a 100 yr old quarantine flag, Dan was able to easily draw parallels between our predicament today and the plight of the 19th century mariner.
Dan The types of food that were brought on board were intended to be well preserved. It’s only when you approach an island that they would get the cooper to build casks from all of the parts below and they would row a boat into the island and look for fresh water.
Dinah: And then there were the confines of a vessel sailing for months at sea.
Dan: The crew was restricted to certain parts of the ship. The officers in other areas. So, it was somewhat of an hierarchical kind arrangement. On board a small vessel that could be anywhere from 40 to 80 feet long.
Chip: And if the weather was good, you may get to stand at the rail and look out at the vastness of the ocean.
Dan: But most of the time you were confined with all of these other people below. So a really funny kind of contrast between an expansive environment, but the physical constraints of a really limited one.
Chip: In 1864, after nearly two weeks without any wind in his sails, poet James Russell Lowell famously said: "There is nothing so desperately monotonous as the sea, and I no longer wonder at the cruelty of pirates."
Dan: When you read the journals of the greenhands, the sailors who were on their first voyages, they really usually express terrible surprise for being so constrained.
Chip: And while the constraints of the quarantine in 2020 have led to the popularity of tik tok videos and sourdough starters, sailors in the 19th century had to get creative with what was at hand. Some would illustrate in their journals or decorate the handles of their sea chests. Others would engage in the classic maritime artform of scrimshaw.
Dan: The teeth came from the lower jaws of sperm whales because the upper jaws didn’t have any.
Dinah: Whale teeth could be acquired either in the act of whaling, or purchased at one of many ports along a sailor’s journey.
Dan: They’d begin by sanding and polishing the surface of a teeth and then they’d scratch a picture into it with a pen knife or one of the ship board tools.
Dinah: Pictures of people back home, beautiful tropical islands and whatever they would have been dreaming about.
Dan: I can picture the artist sort of running his finger along a sooty lamp chimney or the top of the cook stove to get some blacking into the lines they’d scratched in and voila, he had a souvenir that was emblematic of his voyage.
Chip: According to Dan, one of the most intriguing pieces of scrimshar in PEM’s collection involves a ship called the Susan out of Nantucket by a scrimshander named Frederick Myerick
Dan: The scrimshaw is highly detailed and highly informative. He recorded all kinds of information. He put a portrait of the ship itself, the Susan. One one side, it’s hunting for whales, on the other side it’s the coast of Japan. He has a poem on it. Oh, boy. Long life to killers, success to sailors wives and greasy luck to whalers….and there is one more line in there, I’m blanking on.
Dinah: On this one voyage, Myreick actually made several identical pieces.
Dan: It’s really fascinating to think why would he have made this tooth and why would he have made several that essentially look the same except they have different dates on them. I’m sort of enthralled by this theory that a collector once gave to me, without any evidence at all. It’s just speculation.
Dinah: You can imagine -- You’ve sailed from Nantucket to the middle of the Pacific. Your days consist of hunting for whales, butchering whales and boiling down their blubber.
Dan: And after days or weeks, over the horizon another sail is sighted and you sail in closer and you see an American flag and you sail even closer and you realize it’s a ship from New England, Nantucket or even Salem. And you know some of the people on board, so the two ships tie up and everybody has a party in the middle of the Pacific. They called it a gam.
Dinah: And the captain of the Susan, Captain Swain, had this scrimshander on board, Myerick. And Myerick makes him one of these pieces as a gift to the passing ship.
Dan: And he hands it off to the captain of the other ship and shakes his hand and he says it’s been nice seeing you here. Here’s a souvenir of our little gam.
Chip: And maybe that’s why Myerick had made so many. It’s like a ship’s calling card.
Dan: A memento of having run into Captain Swain and the ship, Susan, in the Pacific.
-- MUSICAL INTERLUDE --
Dan: Out in the middle of the ocean, in the middle of the night, seeing an incredible wealth of stars,way beyond what can ever be seen on land. It’s hard to ground yourself in a way. It’s hard to orient yourself towards where you are going. If you go below, and you come up, everything is turned around. It’s a sense of distancing that can’t even be imagined on land. There isn’t any place that’s so disorienting.
Dinah: Here in the Spring of 2020, we are feeling a bit of this disorientation. News and headlines fuel our uncertainty and keep us off balance. The ground below us seems to be moving.
Chip: Under these constraints, we seek more than ever to connect with friends and family...and whenever possible to celebrate.
Dan: So today’s my daughter’s 12th birthday. We’re going to have a birthday party for her. All of her friends who were supposed to come to the house, will be connecting via Skype or Facetime. And they’ll all sing to her and we’ll cut the cake. They’ll have a grand old time, but not as grand as if all of her friends could have a piece of that cake. So looking at the upside of the situation, that’s more cake for me. Otherwise, who knows if I’d even gotten a slice.
-- HAPPY BIRTHDAY SONG AND CHATTER --
Dinah: That’s our show. Thanks for listening. You know, PEM was founded on the idea that life at sea was hard. It was hard on sailors AND their families. The sea promised neither wealth nor safe passage. And so the museum’s founders offered aid to those who lost their fortunes or their loved ones to the sea.
Chip: Today, during these uncertain times, PEM is once again offering its support. When listeners like you buy or renew your membership to PEM, the museum will give a free membership to caregivers at North Shore Medical Center.
Dinah: If you are interested in learning about PEM’s maritime origins, there’s a great new book available. “Collecting the Globe” was written by our own Associate Curator of Exhibitions and Research, George Schwartz and it’s available online in the PEM Shop or wherever you find good books.
Chip: Special thanks John Newman of the National Park Service, and, of course, to Dan Finamore. If you have comments or story ideas or if you want to share what you’re doing through this health crisis, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find out what PEM is doing during this closure at pem.org and keep in touch with us through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.
Dinah: Stay tuned for more episodes of the PEMcast.