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Working sailors—our inspiration, our humility check

2019 March 1

We were full of ourselves, bold seafarers reveling in boisterous sailing conditions, bursting with exuberance, on the verge of exchanging high fives every time a wave broke over the bow.

We were sailing from St. Lucia to Fort-de-France, Martinique. The trade wind on that day had backed a few degrees to the north and picked up a few knots of velocity to something over 20, so our passage was a full-on beat into robust, whitecapped seas. Though the windward bash was leavened by the 80-degree warmth of the wind and water, the few sails we saw in the distance were on boats headed the easy way, downwind, and this added to our conceit that we were quite special.

As the island of Martinique grew in the view over the bow pulpit, I spied something odd to starboard—conical shapes rising with the waves and then disappearing in the troughs. As we got closer, I could tell the shapes were the tall straw hats worn by many working folk on Martinique. These were on the heads of three fishermen in a low-freeboard, open boat, maybe 15-feet long, making slow progress with a small outboard. One of them waved a greeting as we passed.

The sight of the Martiniquais fishermen in their cockleshell treating their labors on the blustery Caribbean as just another day at the office was a deserved dose of humility for the self-impressed sailors on our chartered 50-foot, 20,000-pound fiberglass yacht.

I experienced something like that when I read a book titled “The Last Whalers,” published in January. The last whalers are the Lamalerans, men of a village on a volcanic island at the southern extremity of Indonesia who sail on the Savu Sea in open boats they build according to remembered plans generations old with sails they make of palm fronds to hunt the whales their community depends on for survival. They are fearless in their frail craft, undeterred by the distances they need to sail in their whale quests or the weather they face on waters that are a virtual highway for typhoons. Their story is enough to give those of us who sail for pleasure in our sturdy, manufactured vessels a dilettante complex.

To be clear, the book written by journalist Doug Bock Clark is not an anthropological tome, but a splendidly reported real-time story. He covered it while living in Lamalera in periodic sojourns from 2014 through 2018, and the story of this ancient seafaring hunter-gather society surviving tenuously in a modern world goes on even now.

The Lamalerans subsist on sea creatures and they are sea creatures themselves, at home on and in their waters north of Australia between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. When one of their whale-hunting sailboats called ténas closes on a sperm whale, the harpooner balances on a platform at the bow and at the moment of truth, in an act that would likely scare the pants off of Queequeg, the noble harpooner of “Moby-Dick,” launches not just his homemade harpoon, but also his body, landing on the back of the leviathan at the instant he drives the spearhead home.

The usual outcome is that the Lamaleran ends up swimming next to an enraged whale, as Clark wrote about a harpooner named Jon: “Jon cut desperate strokes through the water back to the boat, trying to outdistance the whale’s gnashing jaw and thrashing tail.”

Sperm whales taken by the Lamalerans have been measured at more than twice the length of a téna. The boats are about 35 feet long, but built by an ingenious method passed down through the ages to be light enough to be launched quickly from a beach. Jungle trees are felled, dense Burmese rosewood for the lower hull and light kapok for the upper planks. A bent Chinese chaste tree is selected for the keel.

Clark describes the building of a téna in 2016 for which “clansmen sculpted the 32 boards of the hull not with chain saws or other modern tools but with hand adzes.” Over a period of weeks “they snapped the hull boards into the keel, their ends carved into lap-jointed hooks, so that the wood jigsawed together for strength.” 

Not a single nail or screw was used. Instead the builders employed a lashed-lug fastening method dating to the Bronze Age. The hull was wrapped with rattan rope and then torqued, “pressuring the joints and internal dowels pegged between them for days until they fused.”

The rig on a téna consists of two spars mounted on the gunwales that rise to an apex from which a single square sail is hung. The sail is trimmed with line the tribe weaves from jungle cotton and the bark of palms and hibiscus trees. The rig is taken down and stowed when the ténas confront a whale.

There is a price to be paid for the lightness and agility of the Lamaleran sailboats and it is often exacted by the prey they hunt. Those thrashing tails have wrecked many a téna, and some of their occupants have been maimed or killed. Whales have dragged the boats and their crews into perilous straits. “The Last Whalers” begins with a tragic tale of four ténas towed by a “devil whale” speared by 10 harpoons in a terrifying version of a Nantucket sleigh ride into the maw of a typhoon that left them hundreds of miles from their village without water or food.

The ténas and their sailors and their culture endure, but their future may be short. More and more Lamalerans hunt with jonsons, small boats named after the 15-horsepower Johnson outboards that powered the first of their type used by the tribe. A materialistic world lures young Lamalerans from their remote birthplace. And pressure from wildlife conservation organizations on the Lamalerans to end their whale killing is building, even though, in Clark’s view, their hunting has little impact on a sperm whale population that numbers in the hundreds of thousands.

It is hard to imagine a future for the Lamalerans without whales. Whale meat is shared with every member of the community in a society anthropologists have identified as one of the most generous in the world. Preserved as jerky, it is used as currency, traded for produce from more fertile areas of the island
of Lembata.

The Lamalerans are the last subsistence whalers in the world, but for sailing enthusiasts like us they are something else—brethren sailors whose skills and courage are an inspiration.