By Peter J. Greenhalgh for the Nantucket Historical Association
Under a sapphire blue summer sky, above the call of a lone gull floating on a gentle breeze, a booming voice yelling, “Ready to row, ROW,” sounds across the water as a boat propelled by oarsmen skims along.
The boat has five oars and a steering-oar. The harpooner, in the bow, pulls a starboard oar, painted with five stripes to indicate its place. Next comes the “bow” oar, to port, painted with four stripes; then the “midship” oar to starboard, three stripes; then the “tub” oar, to port, two stripes; and the last, the boatsteerer with the “stroke” oar, to starboard, one stripe.
Welcome aboard the “Wanderer,” a twenty-eight-foot Beetle boat built in 1995—to the exact specifications of those used aboard whaleships in the mid-nineteenth century— commissioned and owned by Susan and James Genthner.
Hailing from the seacoast town of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, James had a love of boating that was nurtured by numerous childhood trips with his grandfather to the New Bedford Whaling Museum. As a young adult, James moved to Nantucket and discovered, much to his amazement, that there were no sailboat charters being offered on this island thirty miles out at sea—and his dream became a reality. He and Sue own and operate the Friendship sloop “Endeavor,” a boat James built himself. “Every summer, we’d have so many customers who were fascinated by the whaling history of Nantucket, I felt as though I were on a training (teaching) ship,” said James. “When I began explaining how easily the whalers could row a whaleboat, we decided Nantucket should have its very own.”
Realizing the time commitment it would take to build another boat, the husband and wife team searched up and down the Massachusetts and Maine coasts looking for just the right builder. They found their man in Christopher Emerson, a recent graduate of the Boat Building Landing School in Maine. “He was this young guy fresh out of school with a beautiful shop and lots of tools, but no work,” said Sue. The plan came full-circle when they secured a set of original Beetle boat blueprints from the mid-1800s by designer Charles Beetle of New Bedford, Christopher had the wooden whaleboat completed in just one winter.
James and Susan decided to ask the then recently-formed nonprofit Nantucket Community Sailing organization and the well-established Egan Institute of Maritime Studies if they would be interested in developing a partnership. Thus, the Whaleboat Rowing Club was formed.
Community Sailing provides the insurance rider for this on-water activity, and only requests that the rowers have a yearly membership with the organization. Paid staff members give their time in the spring and fall to prepare the boat for the season and bring her to her summer berth.
The emphasis is on teamwork as the rowers, required to pull together in a systematic effort, learn the methods used by the original whalers. Despite the cool breeze on their tanned shoulders, the willing athletes perspire, being careful not to “catch a crab” (falling off the bench when you don’t raise your oar out of the water soon enough). The rowers, one to an oar, develop a system of smooth strokes, knowing when to dig their oars into the blue-green sea while pulling as hard as they can. Rowers feel a special connection with Nantucket’s whaling history as they glide across the harbor under the watchful gaze of the rambling old summer homes lining Hulbert Avenue experiencing both peace and exhilaration, knowing they are going under their own power, at their own pace.
Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, whether they have sand in their shoes, share a passion for being out on the water or just enjoy capturing the beauty of the island around them, after roughly an hour, each member experiences a sense of accomplishment, the satisfaction of a job well done and the camaraderie of working together.
Perhaps it is the smell of salt on the wind, the warm summer sun, the burst of old- fashioned exercise or the romanticism of going back to a simpler time; whatever the case, the whaleboat rowers are filled with the tranquility and satisfaction of knowing, for a brief moment in time, that they, too, were experiencing first hand a part of the island’s storied whaling past —an industry that helped put the island on the map, and made Nantucket world-renowned.
If anyone is interested in joining the Rowing Club, please contact Nantucket Community Sailing, 508-228-6600.
Article edited. Full version available in NOW NANTUCKET GUIDE 2018.