Sunday, August 21, 2016

Mountain – "Nantucket Sleighride" (1971)

My ship’s leaving on a three-year tour . . .
On a search for the mighty sperm whale

I recently took a ferry to visit the small island of Nantucket, which sits about 30 miles south of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Today Nantucket is a posh summer resort with some of the highest real estate prices in the United States.

Nantucket beach houses
But two hundred years ago, Nantucket was the center of the American whaling industry, home to dozens of whaling ships that sailed on two- or three-year voyages to the South Pacific in search of sperm whales.   

The most famous – or infamous – of the Nantucket whaleships was the Essex, which was rammed and sunk in the South Pacific in 1820 by an unusually large sperm whale.

A whale attacks the Essex
The ship’s 20 crew members set off in three small whaleboats, hoping to cross thousands of miles of open ocean and reach South America.  The eight sailors who were eventually rescued some three months later had survived by cannibalizing the bodies of seven of their shipmates. 

The voyage of the Essex, which inspired Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick, is the subject of Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2000 book, In the Heart of the Sea.

In a 2015 Smithsonian magazine article, Philbrick described how Nantucket whalers captured whales:

In the early 19th century a typical whaleship had a crew of 21 men, 18 of whom were divided into three whaleboat crews of six men each.  The 25-foot whaleboat was lightly built of cedar planks and powered by five long oars, with an officer standing at the steering oar on the stern.  The trick was to row as close as possible to their prey so that the man at the bow could hurl his harpoon into the whale’s glistening black flank.  More often than not the panicked creature hurtled off in a desperate rush, and the men found themselves in the midst of a “Nantucket sleigh ride.”  For the uninitiated, it was both exhilarating and terrifying to be pulled along at a speed that approached as much as 20 miles an hour, the small open boat slapping against the waves with such force that the nails sometimes started from the planks at the bow and stern.

As Philbrick explained, a harpoon did not kill the whale – it served the function of a fishhook.  It enabled the whalers to hold on to the whale until it exhausted itself.  When the whale weakened and slowed down, the sailors would pull on the rope attached to the harpoon – in essence, they were reeling the whale in.  Once they were close to the whale, it was time for the wet work.

A whaler prepares to
deliver the coup de grâce
Taking up the 12-foot-long killing lance, the man at the bow probed for a group of coiled arteries near the whale’s lungs with a violent churning motion.  When the lance finally plunged into its target, the whale would begin to choke on its own blood, its spout transformed into a 15-foot geyser of gore that prompted the men to shout, “Chimney’s afire!”   As the blood rained down on them, they took up the oars and backed furiously away, then paused to observe as the whale went into what was known as its “flurry.”  Pounding the water with its tail, snapping at the air with its jaws, the creature began to swim in an ever-tightening circle.  Then, just as abruptly as the attack had begun with the initial harpoon thrust, the hunt ended.  The whale fell motionless and silent, a giant black corpse floating fin up in a slick of its own blood and vomit.

* * * * *

“Nantucket Sleighride” is the title track of Mountain’s second album, which was released in 1971.  The song is dedicated to Owen Coffin, an 18-year-old Essex crew member.

After running out of food, the four men on Coffin’s whaleboat agreed to draw straws to decide which one of them should be killed and eaten.  When Coffin drew the short straw, his cousin (who commanded the Essex) offered to take his place, but Coffin demurred.  Coffin was then shot and consumed by the other three sailors.

“Nantucket Sleighride” was co-authored by Mountain’s bassist, Felix Pappalardi, who produced three Cream albums and co-wrote “Strange Brew” with his wife, Gail Collins, and Eric Clapton.

In 1983, Collins shot and killed Pappalardi in their New York City apartment.  She was charged with second-degree murder but claimed the shooting was an accident, and so was convicted only of criminally negligent homicide.  Collins was paroled less than two years after her conviction.

Here’s “Nantucket Sleighride”:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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