Eighty-six-year-old Ernest Johnson has spent 26 years at sea on freighters, tankers and passenger ships, sailing to most of the major seaports in the world. He worked as a chef for some of the finest New England resorts for 20 years after leaving his nautical life.
Now he spends his twilight years in a modest apartment on Cleveland’s east side, where, “I live with my memories.”
But for the superb storyteller whose recall is crystal clear, the most exciting time in his life occurred in 1917 when he was a teen-ager who ran away from home and went to sea as a whaler on the 80-foot, four-masted schooner, the A. M. Nicholson.
It was one of the last of America’s old-time whaling ships. Operating under sail, it pursued the leviathans as man had for centuries. It sailed in the Caribbean and in the Atlantic 300 to 400 miles off Cape Hatteras chasing the giant creatures of the sea.
“Ernest Johnson is a rare piece of American history. He’s one of the last, if not the last, surviving whale men of the old whaling days when whalers went down to sea in sailing ships,” said John Bockstoce, 44, author of nine books on whaling, a pre-eminent historian of America’s whaling industry.
Bockstoce, who earned his Ph.D. in marine biology at Oxford, was unaware of Johnson until informed by The Times. “I tried for 10 years to track down another old whaler but when I finally found him it was too late. He had died. I can’t wait to talk to him,” Bockstoce said in a telephone interview about Johnson.
Johnson began the story of his life: “I was born in New Bedford, Mass., the whaling capital, June 24, 1902.”
He told the tale in his apartment, filled with souvenirs from his years at sea, including: a harpoon from the A. M. Nicholson; a painting from one of his fellow sailors on the whaler showing the steersman from a whaling boat hurling a harpoon into a whale; a painting of a ship trapped in ice; another artwork showing a sailing vessel awash in heavy seas; glass floats; corks; fishing net; and much much more.
He told of spending hours as a young boy growing up in New Bedford, forever going down to the docks watching whaling ships unloading barrels of whale oil and loading provisions in preparation for long voyages at sea.
“One day, I got up enough nerve and went aboard the A. M. Nicholson and asked the captain if he needed a cabin boy,” he said. “He said he did but I would have to have written permission from my mother or father.
“I told him I was an orphan and lived with my aunt. ‘Get a letter from your aunt!’ the captain told me,” the old man said, as the excitement mounted in his voice as his story unraveled.
He said he lied. He did have parents. But he faked the letter, which was accepted by the captain and by the U.S. Customs House official, a requirement at the time.
He went into a drawer and pulled out a photograph of his whaling ship, pulled out his faded shipping papers from the A. M. Nicholson with the skipper’s name heading the list, John J. Gonsalves and Johnson’s name at the bottom.
The papers showed that the captain was to receive a share of whale oil “as per agreement,” the first mate, 1/16th of the cargo’s value, the second mate 1/125th and so on down to the cabin boy, 1/175th share.
“We sailed Feb. 5, 1917, headed for the Caribbean,” he said. “A couple of days out, and we ran into a god-awful storm. Men were lashed to the wheel it was so bad. I was so sea sick I couldn’t get out of bed. When the seas calmed the captain picked me up in his arms, carried me to a chair on the deck and had the cook throw a bucket over the side to haul up salt water, which he had me drink. That cured me of my sea sickness. I have never been sea sick again.”
The old whaler continued, both laughing and grimacing about the memory of his first days at sea.
Off the island of Dominica in the West Indies, the ship caught its first whale but the beasts were few in number and the ship sailed into the Atlantic, 400 miles off North Carolina where whales were plentiful.
“There were four whaling boats on the schooner. Each boat had a crew of six. My job was to look for the whales from up in the crow’s nest. When I spotted the spouts I would yell ‘Thar she blows!’ and the whale boats would sail in the direction of the spouts as fast as the wind would take them.
“The only ones aboard ship when the men and the boats were out were the cook, the steward, the captain and myself,” he said. “I would be in the crow’s nest or at the wheel. The ship would sail in the wake of the smaller whaling boats.”
He told how the steerer at the bow harpooned the whale, which then “would take off. If the whale stayed on the surface running with the harpoon and the line attached to it, we would call that a ‘Nantucket sleigh ride.’ Sometimes a whale would sound and go under. The line would run out and the whale men would sail to the wounded whale weakened by blood pouring from the harpoon hole.”
When the boat neared the wounded whale, the mate hurled a razor sharp lance shaped like a man’s heart into the beast to kill it, said Johnson. Then the whale boat retrieved the line and pulled the whale alongside the schooner for rendering.
“We butchered the whale as it lay in the water next to the ship,” he said noting the animal’s head was cut open with an ax to remove the white, waxy spermaceti. Huge chunks of blubber were cut and lifted aboard for melting in fire pots on the deck. The hot oil was scooped in huge ladles into tanks and into wooden casks.
“While we butchered the whale,” he recalled, “sharks would come alongside and bite off big chunks of meat. The cook brought whale meat aboard for stew.
“One time, one of the men jumped off the ship into the whale’s guts yelling at the top of his voice ‘Ambergris, ambergris!’
“ ‘What’s that?’ I asked one of my shipmates. I thought the guy who jumped in the whale had gone wacko. I learned that ambergris is used to make perfume, that it was worth its weight in gold.”
Johnson recounted the whaler’s superstitions, including one that a stay for an hour or more in the still-warm animal’s corpse would ensure a man never would suffer arthritis or rheumatism. “I tried it. It’s worked for me so far,” he said.
While they were whaling, a destroyer appeared and informed the captain that the United States was at war with Germany and that the schooner should return to New Bedford because there were German submarines in the area.
“The captain told the crew, ‘I ain’t goin’ nowhere until we get filled up!’ ” Johnson recalled. He said the ship stayed out until all its casks were filled with whale oil.
Records of the schooner A. M. Nicholson are on file in the Whaling Museum in New Bedford with a copy of the same 1917 shipping orders under master John Gonsalves that Johnson has. The schooner was built in 1900. Records show that the whaler was warned by a U.S. destroyer to return to port because of a submarine scare after war against Germany had been declared.
After leaving the whaler, Johnson sailed on more conventional vessels: “I sailed around the world several times.”
He said he had visited Murmansk, Bora Bora, Singapore, Australia, Iceland, the Arctic, Europe, Asia, South America and “many, many other exotic ports.”
“I spent most of my time at sea as a cook,” he said. “I caught typhoid fever in the Pacific, damn near died from bad water in Panama, rode out violent sand storms on the Red Sea, but never in all my life did I have as much excitement as I did those seven months whaling on the A. M. Nicholson.”