Notes from a Whaling Master's Daughter

They are the only mistakes I’m glad I made in journalism. Because of them I met the daughter of a whaling master, which, to me, is as remarkable in the latter half of 2004 as meeting the daughter of a Civil War veteran. I’m not too far off using that as a parallel, actually. Doris West Nevin’s father – Captain Ellsworth Luce West, the last Island whaling master, about whom I wrote (and, in three facts, erred) in the July 2004 edition of the magazine – was born ten months before the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Doris Nevin, who lives about half the year on part of the grown-over Chilmark farm her father bought after he came home from the sea nearly a century ago, turned eighty-six years old in August. Her father was fifty-four and long retired from whaling and freighting when she was born, a year into his second marriage to Elsie Athearn Crowell. Captain West fell in love with Elsie while she nursed Gertrude, his first wife, during her final illness in Chilmark in 1917. With Elsie he would have five more children after Doris – his last, twin girls (Helen and Elizabeth) in 1927, when he was sixty-three.
Doris called me a few weeks after my story – a Family Portrait of Ellsworth and his first wife Gertrude – appeared in the magazine this summer. It never occurred to me that Captain West, who died at eighty-four in 1949, might have living children – in fact he has three: Doris, Eileen, and Elizabeth – and I began to yammer helplessly into the phone after Doris got right to the point, which was that I had fouled up several important facts in her father’s biography. “Slow down. You’re talking too fast. I can’t understand you,” she said in a punchy old Chilmark idiom that, to my ear, sounded none too slow itself.
“Isn’t that funny, how we bonded like that!” she said to me at the dining room table in her log-cabin home, after I visited her this summer. I went to see the family pictures and hear some of the old stories of Captain West. “I feel as if I’ve known you a long time. It’s been crazy, hasn’t it? Are you an Aries?”
For the first twelve years of her life, Doris, who adored her father, followed him around the farm and the town “like a shadow, his right-hand man.” She graduated from the Tisbury High School in 1935, worked as a secretary at the old Sanitary Laundry on School Street in Oak Bluffs, and with her late husband Edwin W. (Doc) Nevin, lived much of her married life in Bartow, Florida. He worked as a radio and instrument repairman in the phosphate mines, and she packed fruit. “Oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, temples, mineolas,” she said. “Oh, I liked it. Physical. That’s what I needed. Not to be sitting down at a desk. At that time, I needed the physical.”        

She was also secretary-treasurer of the Florida Archery Association. “I was state champion for about two years in Florida, 1957 and 1958. Then I was runner-up off and on. Then I was southeastern champion one year.” The Nevins, who had two sons, Channing and Bruce, built a home in Edgartown, off Chase Road, in 1976. Doc retired in 1981 and eventually built the log cabin in which Doris now lives on the old family farm during the warmer months of the year.  
Captain West, who retired from whaling in 1899, and from freighting along the Pacific coast from San Francisco up to Nome in 1910, was a great storyteller, Doris told me. “Oh, God. If I had anybody come in to visit me, he had them at the door, telling his stories. It was impulsive for him to tell his stories. It’s gotten that way somehow with me to tell the stories. I don’t do as good a job as he did.” Did she enjoy listening to them? “Not really. At one point I thought he was bragging. I was proud of him, but at the same time: ‘Oh, God, why does he have to brag about what he did?’ He was an ‘I, I’ man, very much so. He accomplished a lot of things. That’s what he was. He was very sure of himself.”
He was not a man to make many mistakes, she said to me, before pointing out mine: Gertrude, his first wife, did not sail with him “as ship’s clerk on every voyage in which he was in command.” She sailed with him on his last two whaling trips, and served as clerk during the coasting voyages he made to Alaska after 1902. Thus Gertrude did not go home to “mind the family farm in Chilmark” while he was at sea; they bought the farm together after he retired. “Oh, gosh sakes. What did he do that for?” she said of my flawed reporting when she read it for the first time. But after telling me that I was talking too fast over the telephone, Doris West Nevin, one of the last three daughters of an Island whaling master, heard something in my voice that sounded all right to her. It was probably surprise, contrition, and awe. Whatever it was, she forgave me.
“I was free to speak,” she said of our first conversation. “I felt a bond.” And in a letter after the latest visit, she wrote: “Best to you, my new-found friend. We may be just passing ships in the dark, but for a purpose? Two birds, etc.”