Whaleboats, Fake Whales and a Real Town


John Steinbeck once told Bob Freidah when they were planning the Old Whalers Festival that what the event needed was some good competition. Steinbeck imagined a race of some kind, a manly sort of sport that would recall the days when whalers haunted the local gin mills before heading out to sea for years at a time, chasing sperm whales and right whales across the open ocean. It was that spirit of adventure, of pitting man against the sea, or against a whale, or against his fellow man that he apparently believed would bring yet more life to the fledgling annual gathering. (Or maybe he was looking for a good laugh, since he also proposed sending stout-hearted men 30-feet out on to a greased pole dangling perilously above the waters off Long Wharf to capture a flag. They then, presumably, would shimmy their way back without taking a dunking in the cold harbor. In New Bedford  — one of Sag Harbor’s rival whaling towns — it continues to be a popular “sport”, if one can call it that, and the one who returns with the flag apparently also wins the heart of a local gal. In any event, organizers demurred because they thought it too dangerous. Or the insurance bill too high.)

The gang that first conjured up the Old Whalers Festival, arguably the most famous bacchanal of its kind, which attracted thousands to the village in the days when Sag Harbor was hoping to reinvent itself in the face of certain economic reversals, had planned a weekend of great festivities in late June to jumpstart the summer season. There would be fireworks and exhibitions where some of the finest trained retrievers anywhere would show their stuff off the beach near Long Wharf. They had beauty contests for women (Sag Harbor had apparently not yet evolved to the point where it could practicably have beauty contests for men), and even welcomed the women from Miss Rheingold.

There was a parade with floats and bands and the notorious North Sea Fire Department.

There was a “town crier” who symbolically lit the lamps on Main Street to start the festival off, an evening where the Whalers Chorus would sing.

And there was a beard growing contest. Competitors would begin in early spring with ceremonial shavings on the same day, and over the months leading up to the festival would kid each other about how successful or unsuccessful each other was in growing facial hair. The contest would culminate on the opening night of the festival when each of the contestants appeared before a crowd in the auditorium of what is now Stella Maris Catholic School. Each dressed as if they were to head out to sea the following morning to chase whales: striped shirts, bandanas, oil skins with suspenders, pork pie hats and some with pipes clenched in their teeth. The beard and the costume were actually two parts of a three-part presentation, the third testing their ability to bring their crew’s attention to the matter at hand. Each was required to bellow out a “Whale–hooooooooo!”, which apparently either drew cheers or laughter from the audience.

The winner was named Old Whaler of the Year, and assumed the exalted role of the festival’s grand marshal.

But it was arguably the racing of whaleboats, which Sag Harbor’s Nobel laureate had proposed to Bob Freidah and other organizers, that wound up drawing the most attention about 40 years ago when the festival first was born.

There are many pictures that hang on my office wall, but one in particular seems apropos. It is of some guy standing in a whaleboat about to plunge a harpoon into the back of a black whale. The whale is a fabrication, built atop a skiff with a small outboard for moving the whale around. As one story goes, there was actually a man in the belly of the whale one morning, having, unbeknownst to all, snuck out there the night before for a quiet spot to sleep after an evening enjoying the fruits of local watering holes. As morning welcomed the competitors to the water the harpoonist on the lead boat thrust his lance through the leviathan’s canvas skin and barely missed skewering the poor gent who was awakened by the roar of the crowd. Among all the dangers of the whaling industry, I don’t think the earliest practitioners ever imagined this particular risk. Truth be told, I cannot verify that any of this is true, — although I have heard the story in several versions, and feel it is so wonderful and helps me imagine a time in Sag Harbor I was unfortunate not to have experienced that I felt obliged to perpetuate it here.

It’s unclear in the retelling of all the stories about the Old Whalers Festival what killed the actual real-life fake-harpooning of an artificial whale: the near death experience of the sleepy Jonah, or the celebrated threat of Greenpeace to come and protest the event. But in subsequent years the event became more a rowing race; perhaps a portent of calmer times ahead.

In his now famous “Manifesto,” the preamble to the Old Whalers Festival’s second annual journal, Steinbeck promised that they had learned from their mistakes of the previous year, and now would be able to make them sooner.

At the same time, echoing that kind of rough and tumble justice that must have been the norm in the old whaling days, he vowed that any differences of opinion would be settled out by Otter Pond, or, he predicted, in it.

In the spring of 1991 I was asked to help organize some events around the launch of “Sag Harbor: The Story of an American Beauty,” a history of this remarkable community by Dorothy Ingersoll Zaykowski. The Sag Harbor Historical Society was publishing the book and thought a parade and some other events on a Saturday afternoon would be a good way to bring attention to the book. I went to Bob Freidah for advice, and for the past 18 years there has been a festival where dozens of local organizations come together every fall to commemorate the maritime and cultural history of Sag Harbor.

And one of the most popular events is the whaleboat racing where teams of four grab tiller and oars to race around a whale floating in the harbor. (Greenpeace hasn’t threatened to come back and we haven’t threatened to harpoon the fake whale).

By many accounts, we live in a more genteel time here in Sag Harbor. There are giant mega yachts tied to Long Wharf, with luxury salons, and the restaurants and bars that provided lunch and refreshments for the men and women who worked in the local factories have all been gentrified. When the Old Whalers Festival was in its flower Rowe Industries, Grumman and Bulova were still active, and Steinbeck’s promise that justice would be carried out in Otter Pond might not have been too far from being true.

Today’s festival is a decidedly quieter affair, and there doesn’t appear to be the need for the frontier justice Steinbeck evoked. Although there was the time Dirk popped Howie for grabbing his oar illegally as they were rounding the second mark in the 2003 whaleboat races.