American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

TUNING THE RIG: A JOURNEY TO THE ARCTIC* (1990). This firsthand account of a contemporary sea voyage in the mid-1980s relates the trials, the pains, and a few of the delights of a writer who ships as a deckhand on an oceanographic sailing expedition to observe the behavior of whales in the Northwest Atlantic. The Danish 144-foot oak barquentine Regina Maris (1908), having seen difficult service on four oceans, found new life in 1975 as a research vessel. She makes it safely on the two-month voyage from Boston to Greenland and back, to study humpback whales and other wildlife, which the book chronicles. Author Harvey Oxenhorn (19511990) uses ship parts to name sections of the book and log information for his chapter headings.

Oxenhorn, who had taught the works of Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville* at Tufts and Stanford before joining the faculty of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, is aboard the Regina Maris on his inaugural voyage in his thirtieth year and returns to Boston a different person. He writes more about human than whale behavior, for Oxenhorn has all of the problems of the green “boy” on sailing vessels of old, including an immovable captain with whom he cannot relate, living conditions that he cannot tolerate, and a ship’s discipline against which he rebels. He grows to accept the interdependence of shipmates, nine women and twenty-one men from seventeen to sixty years of age, in their confined universe; a vessel at sea brings them to understand a unique code of service.

In retrospect, Oxenhorn finds that he has tuned himself to that universe just as sailors adjust the rigging of stays and shrouds to support the towering masts. His insightful narration is written with an ecological consciousness for the history of whaling and a deep appreciation for the beauty and the terror of being at sea and the problems that humans have had for centuries in adjusting to life at sea. He may have had Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s* coming-of-age saga Two Years before the Mast* (1840) in mind, though Oxenhorn reveals a depth of emotional response to his sea experience that Dana, writing a century and a half earlier, could not.

Oxenhorn was killed in a car accident in the Berkshires, miles from the ocean, just after the book’s publication.

James F. Millinger