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Tuning the Rig: A Journey to the Arctic by…

Tuning the Rig: A Journey to the Arctic (1990)

by Harvey Oxenhorn

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One mark of a great author must be the ability to make the reader interested in a topic they had never before considered. In the 15 years I lived near Green Bay, WI, I never attended their Tall Ships Festival. Now I wish I had.
Never before at sea, Oxenhorn signs on as crew to a 3-masted brigantine which will be sailing into the Arctic Circle to study whales. While his descriptions of the cold, water-soaked bunks, and fearful ascents into the rigging don't entice me to crew a ship, his descriptions of face-to-face whale sightings, dolphins following, birds overhead, explorations of small northern harbors all makes me wish to set sail.
More than just a travelogue, Oxenhorn brings us into his inner journey as well, as he writes of his own doubts about being able to do the work expected, his questioning of captain's authority, his feeling of purposelessness in his life, and his growing realization of how individual lives are important working together as stewards of this world. One passage which impressed me, as I think about how to live my life: "you are asked not to exert extraordinary skill but to place extraordinary trust in the skill you already possess." (p. 94)
He notices a change in the posture of his other novice crewmates: "Time aboard a small ship redistributes weight throughout one's body, lowering the center of gravity and focusing strength in the pelvis, belly, and thighs...the constant rocking from side to side promotes a physiological integration between right and left sides of the body and functions of the brain...the body in a conversation with the forces that pass through it--gravity, the energy of waves. As that dialogue continues, ceaselessly, the illusion of stability (as something we are granted) gives way to the reality of balance (a process we achieve)." (p 203-4) This is an apt metaphor for how your approach to life can change.
Not only do we learn about life onboard, we hear about how to navigate "shooting the stars", whaling history, the ecology of whales and birds and fish--how their lives are tied together. Yet the book is not all serious. There are just as many moments describing shore leave and local pubs. And this gem "All we can see of Newfoundland is the pier's cracked side and the nostrils and chins of some people peering down. Viewed from below, their faces call to mind old horror movies. When I climb up a shroud to get a better look, they still do." (p. 57)
While he describes many nautical terms in the early book, as he is learning them, I didn't remember them and wish there had been a glossary so I could read later chapters without skipping over "overhauling the buntlines" etc which he, now casually, mentions.
As the ship approaches port, Oxenhorn's writing becomes more reflective and aphoristic as he summarizes the lessons he has learned. ( )
1 vote juniperSun | Mar 8, 2015 |
Oxenhorn, about 8 years ago, thought it would be fun to ,join a group of students, researchers and sailors on a trip to the arctic to study humpback whales. Their mode of transportation was to be the barkentine, Regina Maris, a fully-rigged clipper ship built in 1908. The students would man the sails. "Tuning the Rig" is the process of finding just the right tension in all the stays, lines and shrouds so the ship not only stays together but functions at peak performance. This tuning becomes a metaphor for the interactions of the heterogeneous group of people on board. They are as diverse as can be, each striving to maintain his individuality. Oxenhorn, himself, resists the overwhelming force of the ship, which coerces everyone to work together. It's a humbling experience and Oxenhorn finally comes to agree with George (the captain and former Harvard Medical School Dean) that the crew is not so much a group of people working together as a family, with all the inherent strife and conflict and petty grievances, but bound together as a rope made up of individual strands; each by itself virtually useless, but together incredibly strong. Oxenhorn perceives that the search for individual unity may be but an illusion. When he returns from the voyage after surviving awesome hardships, he tries to convey some of his experiences to friends, but finds their crises (whether to decorate with butcher block or oak) somewhat puerile. He asks George at one point why the captain gave up so much to become involved with a clearly risky educational venture. George responds that it can be summed up by the Russian word, Nitchevo (very loosely translated as "what the hell.") Most people would abolish weather if they could; eliminate risk. So many people spend their lives doing one thing so they will be able to do something else. One should "choose as life's work whatever feels most like play." The descriptions in this book of climbing in the rigging during a gale to reef the sails are awesome. ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
Why, oh why is this masterwork "long out of print"? Because the author died so young perhaps, in a fatal accident shortly after it was published? That accident deprives us, a potentially great, engaging author lost to readers far too early. Probably a greater loss to teaching and scholarship. An incredibly good read, great easy-flowing prose, startling revelations and insights as this "landlubber" grows into a tall-ship sailor.

A whale-watching research cruise into the Arctic, up among our beloved "newfies" and their hard fishing lives, this Professor finds several 'animals' of interest. "To think differently about these animals is to think differently about ourselves as well. From now on, we must all stand watch. One tribe. One family. One crew."

The work reduced this reader to tears by the final chapters, even as he read and sang-along to those half remembered shanties, feeling again those wet-feet moments and the hearing the laughter and jeers of long forgotten shipmates. An apt and regretted memorial to this author.

If you find a copy, do read and enjoy it.
3 vote John_Vaughan | Jun 15, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Harvey Oxenhornprimary authorall editionscalculated
Hoffman, AliceIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pinsky, RobertAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Knowledge the shade of a shade,
Yet must thou sail after knowledge
Knowing less than drugged beasts.
--Ezra Pound, Canto 47
The object of knowledge is relation.
--James Clerk Maxwell
To the memory of my father, Joseph M. Oxenhorn, with love and gratitude.
First words
On a hot June night on the Boston waterfront, I stood alone beneath the Central Artery, looking outward, east, at dusk, to the quiet harbor.
[Introduction] By nature, our friend was a searcher.
[Afterword] Tuning the Rig was not written to be the book of a life, but this tough, soulful work, which is both an adventure story and a meditation, is worthy to be such a book.
All the way to heaven is heaven, all of it a kiss. (p 275)
In the manic pursuit of gaining and becoming, what is lost is the capacity for simply being: with each other, with nature, with ourselves...In exercising self-restraint, in accepting the kinds of limits that I had previously squandered so much energy evading, I experienced a sense of purpose and a kind of solidarity I'd never known before...relieved of the burden of specialness, reprieved from the lonely ego, released but also reengaged. (p 279)
To change our behavior for the sake of results we won't immediately see, to take steps that may not bear fruit until after we ourselves are gone, requires a motive. That motive can't be altruism. Most of what people claim to do for the sake of others has more to do with themselves than with the actual deed...What might the motive be?...maybe our only hope as a species is ... to encompass other species ...we must shepherd on a global scale. (p 264)
What is 'wicked,' ...is not the conscious commission of an evil deed but the capacity for separation and denial of connections...(p 263-4)
I have found myself touched by...an attitude toward work, toward living, that is grounded centrally and simply in necessity. (p 253)
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Haiku summary
trembling aloft,

balanced on swaying rigging,

I gaze in the wise eye of a humpback

Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0060163518, Hardcover)

An Excerpt: 25 July. 69 N/52 W. Off Jakobshavn.

I'm on the wheel at 0600 hours, steering toward the eastern shore of Disko Bay. Having circled the sky at a height of six degrees off the horizon all night long, the sun now oozes upward like a squashed fruit, spreading its pulpy light across a wreckage of ice and stone. The Jakobshavn Glacier, so-called Mother of Icebergs, sprawls dead ahead, grinding seaward at the rate of sixty feet per day, dropping aircraft carrier-sized icebergs into the blue-black sea.

Seven miles offshore we meet our first ice. Closer in it is everywhere; there is often one floe ten yards to starboard and another just as close to port. These chunks are not pack ice formed from the frozen sea. They are splinters, dumptruck-sized, of larger icebergs. It's impossible to guess just how much farther they extend beneath the surface.

Under normal conditions the person on helm may let the compass wander up to five degrees, holding course over time by balancing the swings to either side. But when maneuvering here, straying even one degree could cause real trouble. Square-riggers don't respond like sports cars; steering is hard work, you have to know what you're doing, and at such times in the past it's been routine for a deckhand to take over. So I am surprised, to put it mildly, when George does not replace me at the helm.

My arms are tired, and my back is tense. I keep my eyes glued to the compass and my fingers tight around the wheel. George stands on the roof of the after deckhouse, above and behind me. Amidships, everyone maintains silence so that the helmsman can hear and repeat the captain's orders.

- What's your bearing, Harvey?

- One seven eight.

- Come to one seven nine.

- One seven nine. (Twenty seconds pass.) One seven nine, on.

- Steady. (A half minute passes.) What's your bearing?

- One seven nine.

- Come two stokes to port.

- Two strokes to port.

- Come four strokes to port.

- Four strokes to port, aye.

- What is your bearing?

- One seven eight.

- Steady on

There are all kinds of intimacy in the world. This one proceeds, uninterrupted and unadorned, until I lose track of time. I almost lose myself in the hypnotic counterpoint of order and

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:29 -0400)

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The account of an expedition in search of humpback whales.

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