The White Whale
At the estuary of the Acushnet River in Massachusetts lies New Bedford, a true-to-her-roots fishing port situated 60 miles south of Boston. I imagine that most people sailing these shores land somewhere near here, but not exactly here: Ever-en-vogue Newport, Martha’s Vineyard, Block Island, and Nantucket probably win the New England cruising destination sweepstakes.
Few towns in America, however, can match the maritime history of New Bedford. Her culturally diverse population has been drawn to the town’s salty spirit since the early days, and by the mid-19th century, tiny New Bedford was one of the wealthiest cities in the country, per capita, largely due to her dealings in whale blubber, oil, and spermaceti. Referred to as “The Whale Town,” New Bedford’s nickname belied the fact that she played host to a strong supporting cast, from her numerous shipbuilders (this is where the famous Charles W. Morgan was built, after all) to the writers and artists inspired by the town’s successes. For generations the whaling business was king and the fleet that called New Bedford home reached a zenith in 1857, totaling 329 ships. Not bad for a town of 22,000, half of whom worked in whaling.
But the decline would come, precipitated in 1849 when whalers left their employers to seek Gold Rush fortune out west. A decade later, petroleum would begin to replace whale oil as the fuel of choice in lanterns, and in 1871, the loss of nearly two dozen whaleboats in the ice of Alaska helped punctuate the industry’s fall. With the last whaler retired in the early 20th century, New Bedford scrambled for an economic lifeboat.
Today’s New Bedford has modernized in many ways, but nearly a century after the final whaler retired from service, there is still big business to be had plucking seafood from the ocean. Tourism, too, is strong, thanks to the exemplary New Bedford Whaling Museum. Herman Melville himself worked the decks of a New Bedford whaler before writing Moby-Dick and his scene in the Whaleman’s Chapel (Seamen’s Bethel) still compels Melville fans from around the globe to pay homage. It’s not all about Melville, though. On a recent visit, I toured a room in honor of solo adventurer, Joshua Slocum, and about to kick off was a yearlong exhibition featuring the knots and artistry of another local, Clifford W. Ashley. The museum is the most thoughtfully curated maritime museum I’ve ever visited.
Make sure to read Cecilia Kiely’s excellent feature story on the town of New Bedford and the whaling museum (starting on page 44). Safe cruising.