Thursday, August 1, 2013

Tuning the Rig

Tuning the Rig: a Journey to the Arctic
Harvey Oxenhorn (1990, Harper & Row)

    In the first place, as promised, Tuning the Rig is a journey to the Arctic. The tall ship Regina Maris set out in the summer of 1981 on a nine-week expedition from Boston, sailing down East past Maine, beyond Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, to the waters west of Greenland. The ship’s mission is research on hump-back whales and their habitat. This entails everything from photographing the whale’s flukes to identify individual animals, to seining up the krill and plankton they eat, to measuring the salinity of the water.

    There’s plenty of anthropology to study as well: how Greenland has been affected socially and politically by being part of Denmark; what happens when fishing as a livelihood is disrupted and there’s nothing to do but drink; how many ghost villages dot the shoreline of Newfoundland. Even in summer, the environment is harsh, yet people have come to the arctic for centuries to harvest whales, shipping oil, meat, and bones to Europe and beyond.

    Regina Maris seems a fragile vessel in which to meet ice, fog, and gale force winds. Though grand in scope when seen from the shore, 144 feet long with three seven-story high masts, she is nearly seventy-five years old. She creaks, and she leaks. The three mates, the bosun, and the engineer are constantly renewing her decks, hull, lines and sails. Together with the captain, the cook, and three professional deck hands, they also have charge of sixteen students who double as crew, and four research scientists, who are termed ‘idlers’ because they don’t have sailing duties.

    Harvey Oxenhorn is an odd man out among the crew; a decade older than most of the students, he has gone aboard as a sort of writer in residence, at least in his own mind; but in no time, he is far too busy living the life of a seaman to have much leisure to write about it. He chafes at this, and at all the sundry annoyances of living with 29 strangers in tight, damp quarters. There’s no getting away from the personalities, and the necessary hierarchy feels completely strange to someone who’s been teaching and doing research in literature all his adult life.

    He’s not very good at the sailing, either, especially the parts that take place up in the rigging, sometimes eighty feet off the deck. All this climbing is hard enough at anchor, and in a twenty-knot gale, it scares Oxenhorn stiff, particularly when you need at least one hand to haul in the sail and tie the knots. Throw in a freezing rain, and the dark of night, and the fatigue of never getting to sleep more than four or five hours at a time, and it seems downright impossible.

    Tuning the Rig
is beautiful in many ways, but what made it stick in my mind for two decades is the transformation of Oxenhorn himself, into someone who belongs, who values interdependence and sees connections deeply. The senior crew coach and coax him through episodes of protest and bad temper; they put up with him till he learns to put up with everybody. Here’s how he recognizes that change:

    “When I first came on board, I thought that the whole world owed me. I was ready to make music, damn it. I was disappointed, angry that so little in my life would stay in tune. But tonight, as I barely heard the sounds we made before they were blown astern, I understood such disappointment to be arrogance.

    “It is arrogance to expect that our life always be music. It is false pride to demand to know the score. Harmony, like a following breeze at sea, is the exception. In a world where most things wind up broken or lost, our lot is to tack and tune.”

    Amen, amen.

Email edition, August 1 2013

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