Film : Captain Zeb Tilton gives a history lesson
"Zeb - Schooner Life," a new documentary about the larger-than-life Vineyard sailing captain premieres Thursday, June 26, at the Capawock Theatre in Vineyard Haven.
Mike Wallace, the former "60-Minutes" correspondent who summers in a home overlooking Vineyard Haven Harbor, opens the film. Since he doesn't really know much about the legendary captain, it's appropriate that after setting the scene for the harbor's earlier life, Mr. Wallace asks the off-camera crew, "Who is Zeb Tilton?"
Unless they are sailors, many audience members may be asking the same question. Mr. Tilton, who lived from 1866 to 1952, captained the Alice S. Wentworth, referred to as "the sweetest sailing vessel" in New England. The boat's description reads like poetry. "Her outstanding characteristic was her deep sheer, accented by two yellow stripes," recounts narrator Whit Griswold, a West Tisbury resident. "She was dark moss green from waterline to plank shear, with a black bulwark above it. Her cutwater swept gracefully forward, ending in a carved billethead."
But some said what really made her distinctive was her captain.
Chilmark-born Zebulon Tilton, who shipped out at age 15, was a tall man with big hands, a cross-eye and a gregarious personality that attracted many friends and admirers. He and his brothers all took up the life of the sea, but Mr. Tilton must have been the most skillful, because it was said he could reach Chicago from New England "on a heavy dew."
He was not a whaling captain; instead, he hauled cargo up and down the East coast at a time when Nantucket Sound was one of the busiest ports in the world, with 26,000 ships passing through in one year. In an attempt to pack as much information as possible into "Zeb," Gordon Massingham, the film's director and screenwriter, frequently jumps around from one topic to another, filling the viewer's head with facts that sometimes take the audience far from the legendary schooner captain.
Drawn from Polly Burroughs' book "Zeb: Celebrated Schooner Captain of Martha's Vineyard," Mr. Massingham, founder of Detrick Lawrence Productions in Edgartown, chose to cast his net wide. He provides background on the whaling industry, the early Vineyard community, including Mr. Tilton's forebears, and a look at other local sea captains. With such a variety of material on hand, the film does not always seem to know what direction it wants to take.
The audience learns that whaling vessels sailed farther and farther afield as the whaling population dwindled. Some 24 ships were lost in Arctic ice in 1871. In 1898, the Belvedere, caught in Alaskan ice, was freed after a 2,000-mile trek by George Fred Tilton, Zeb's brother.
After an excursion into square-rigger lore, "Zeb" returns to accounts of its subject's cargo sailing feats. Known in every port from Maine to New York, he once sailed from the Vineyard to Greenport, Long Island, in a mere seven and a half hours. While some thought he was a bit of a showoff, Captain Zeb never smoked, drank, or ran around. That didn't stop the rumors that this homely man, who married three times, had an admiring woman in every port.
As shipping trade was taken over by trains and trucks, Zeb and the Alice S. Wentworth fell on hard times. A group of supporters got together and bought the boat, setting up the 72-year-old as captain until he could no longer sail. After Mr. Tilton's death, the Wentworth changed hands numerous times, eventually finding a home in Boston Harbor. It sank in a hurricane and then was saved and restored through federal legislation. The film goes on to follow the fate of schooners as a class of boats, then closes with more commentary from Mike Wallace.
Using interviews of Tilton family members, nautical experts and marine historians, "Zeb - Schooner Life," preserves a valuable segment of Vineyard history. While the viewer may wish for a more coherent organization, the film wins high marks for its educational value.
"Zeb--Schooner Life," premiers on Thursday, June 26, at 7 pm, at the Capawock Theatre, Main Street, Vineyard Haven. Proceeds benefit The Vineyard Museum.
Brooks Robards is a frequent contributor to the Times.