Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
It was only the second night here, after a celestial navigation lecture, that we looked up through the hundred-foot-high riggings of the three-masted C.W. Morgan and pointed out the stars. The historic buildings that comprise the Williamsburg-esque village were dark–it was after-hours inside the historic Mystic Seaport museum, and only a few floodlights shone. One of them lit up the Morgan’s high sides and curving bow. The lecture was over.
“Do you think–?”
“It’s roped off”
“Is it part of the museum?”
“They said we have 24/7 access to the museum.”
So we crossed the gangplank onto the Morgan. The floodlight set the riggings in hard relief against the sky. I climbed onto the foremost deck, my hand on bowsprit–the long beam that curves forward over a ship’s figurehead. I looked over my right shoulder–downriver–at the lights, the drawbridge, and the masts that make up Mystic, Connecticut.
I am not yet enough of a New Englander to differentiate clearly between the little towns, at night or in the daylight. I’m not even sure if Connecticut is part of New England (I could check Wikipedia, but that would be cheating). Mystic, my home for the semester, could very well be Anytown, Vermont as far as I’m concerned. Notable differences: Mystic has the river, and I-95 has billboards (illegal in Vermont). Similarities: downtowns, tourists, and motorists willing to slam on their brakes if you even glance at a crosswalk. It is a strange feeling, walking unharmed through traffic, but it is beginning to feel like home.
The Maritime Studies Program of Williams College at Mystic Seaport (“Williams-Mystic” for short) consists of 19 students, divided among four houses, where we live communally–doing our own shopping, cooking, and cleaning between classes, maritime skills tutorials, and jobs in the seaport. Throughout our semester-long stay, we will make three multi-day “excursions,” the first of which begins this weekend.
The houses are late-1800s relics, owned and maintained by the Mystic Seaport Maritime Museum (to which–as it was noted earlier–students have free 24/7 access). Thankfully, they’ve been modernized to included such luxuries as electricity, dishwashers, and toilets. Not that we in Johnston (my house) knew it at first: our power flickered on and off for the first few days–the first night in, after our welcome dinner on the docks at Mystic Seaport, I came home to find my housemates gathered around the glow of the emergency light as if it were a dying fire.
At this writing, the power has been restored, and looks to stay that way. Good thing for all of us in the house, because we have 23 chapters in Moby Dick assigned before the beginning of our first excursion: the offshore sail. Nineteen students and various faculty and staff will join the crew of Wood Hole’s SSV Corwith Cramer for ten days of sailing in the Gulf of Maine. Celestial navigation, ecological and oceanographic experiments, and rigging climbs await, in addition to four-hour watches and four-hour sleep periods.
It is the rigging climbs from which we derive this first lesson in nautical terminology, though it is a lesson I learned not here in Mystic, but working at an outdoor adventure summer camp: Belaying. To belay, according to my outdoorsy friends, is (essentially) to hold the end of someone’s rope while they climb. This action ensures the climber’s safety in the case of a fall (providing the rope is correctly run through some hardware at the top of the climb).
The nautical definition of “belay” differs from, and probably gave rise to, its climbing iteration. At sea, to belay is to stop. So one can belay a falling yardarm by lashing it off, or one can “belay the chatter!” and get back to swabbing decks–quarter, poop, main, or otherwise. Thus, one belays ones climbing partner by stopping their fall to certain death. It is my fondest wish that, during my rigging climbs on the excursion and in the seaport, that I acquaint myself only with the nautical sense of the word.