Sailor And Scholar

Bercaw Edwards demonstrates rope techniques at Mystic Seaport.
Bercaw Edwards demonstrates rope techniques at Mystic Seaport.

Mary K. Bercaw Edwards looks right at home standing in the stern of the whaleboat she's captaining.

With dozens of onlookers lining the shore of the Mystic River, she never loses her aplomb, or balance, as she makes her way precariously to the prow, where she picks up an evil-looking spear and explains to the audience, in detail, how it was once used to kill whales by piercing the lungs of the giant beasts.

If she notices that some of the kids and adults in her audience at the Mystic Seaport are squirming slightly with unease, she doesn't let on.

Maybe if they realized the depth of Bercaw Edwards' affinity for whalers or the breadth of her knowledge and abilities on a sailing ship, they'd be a bit more understanding of her enthusiasm for the ancient and necessary vocation of whale hunting.

It's not that Bercaw Edwards embraces the idea of killing whales. It's just that as someone who sailed around the world as a teenager, has logged some 58,000 miles under sail, teaches literature of the sea at the Avery Point campus of the University of Connecticut, has worked at Mystic Seaport for 30 years and who's written or edited several books on her favorite author, Herman Melville, Bercaw Edwards feels a kinship with those stalwart 19th century whalers.

To say she has a penchant for the sea and sailing would be a gross understatement. After all, at the tender age of 16 Bercaw Edwards set off from her California home with her parents and two siblings and embarked on a three and a half-year journey sailing around the world. She sounds downright blasé when she explains how her father, an avid sailor, came home one day in the mid-1970s and announced that he wanted to circumnavigate the globe with his family, an undertaking that would include removing his son and two daughters from school for nearly four years.

"It really didn't come as much of a surprise to me," Bercaw Edwards says. "Somehow, I just always knew it would happen."

The trip, she adds, changed her life.

"It was amazing. We visited 247 ports in 28 countries. For every country we visited my mother made us read a book about that country." She and her siblings learned the art of celestial navigation during the trip and studied and learned foreign languages.

Her mother was a nurse who hoped some of her kids would seek careers in medicine. "Instead all of us followed our dad into the maritime world," Bercaw Edwards says.

Her brother captains a training ship and her sister, who worked on boats for a time, parlayed the knowledge of Spanish she learned on the family's journey into a career as a Spanish language teacher. Though all three were out of school during the more than three-year trip with her parents, "none of us suffered much as a result of it," Bercaw Edwards says.

For Bercaw Edwards, the trip left an indelible mark. Though she went to college, holds a graduate degree in English and is an associate professor at UConn, sailing and the sea have remained at the fore of her life.

She is fervent about Melville, who penned the literary classic "Moby-Dick," and became an expert on the author after one of her college professors suggested that she study the author. She's written three books about Melville, as well as countless articles on his works. She also has edited several other books about him and was the 2004 president of the Melville Society.

"I'm truly passionate about Melville," she says. "I love his work. I love 'Moby-Dick.' "

That focus on Melville and her other maritime studies have helped Bercaw Edwards straddle both the nautical and academic worlds.

She's worked at Mystic Seaporat since 1979 and today is a foreman of one of the museum's demonstration squads, showing visitors how sailors of old did things like climb rigging, set sails, maneuvered large ships, navigated by the stars and handled wooden whaleboats while hunting the marine mammals.

Having a scholar with Bercaw Edwards' background demonstrating sailing and whaleboat techniques is a significant boon for the museum, says Susan Funk, executive vice president at Mystic Seaport.

"Few museums have someone with the breadth and depth of experience that Mary K brings to Mystic Seaport," Funk says. "Our visiting public usually has no idea that they are talking with someone with her level of expertise.

"When she teaches Moby-Dick, Mary K draws upon her deep knowledge of the Charles W. Morgan and maritime history. When she interprets the ship and sail handling, she references Moby-Dick and her own extensive experience at sea. Her energy, focus, and enthusiasm never seem to ebb but continue to build as she adds new knowledge and experience and makes new connections across the disciplines."

Though she was raised in California, Bercaw Edwards was familiar with Mystic Seaport from childhood because her father began visiting it in the 1950s and was a member for decades. The first time he brought his family to the museum, she says, "I was mesmerized by the place." She decided this was where she wanted to put down roots. She came here with no clear plan of how she would live, she just knew she wanted to work at the museum and be around ships.

"I've always believed people should pick the place where they want to live and then go there, and just see what happens," she says. "I got to where I wanted to be and it all worked out. People can believe in their dreams."

She lives near the Mystic River with her husband, musician Craig Edwards, and their two children.

She doesn't long to go to sea these days. "Why would I when I have all this?" she says one day recently, looking out over the ships in the Mystic River from a bench at the seaport.

"I get to spend a lot of time on ships here," she says. "I get to do all this fun stuff and still see my kids every day."


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