Five generations ago, Phil Grant’s great-great-grandfather, James, a Scottish sailmaker who shipwrecked off Old Man Shoal twelve miles east of Wauwinet, made a grand entrance onto the shores of Nantucket. He had donned his kilt, floated on a hatch cover and then swam as the tide carried him to shore in full regalia. When he emerged from the water the Indians thought he was a god.
Four generations ago, Phil Grant’s great-grandfather, Charles, was one of Nantucket’s richest whaling captains whose wife went to sea with him and gave birth in the midst of an arduous around-the-world journey to Phil’s grandfather, George, in Samoa in 1857. George also became a whaler.
Two generations ago, Phil’s father, Arthur, a Coast Guard captain and bootlegger, made whiskey and rum runs on Nantucket Sound during Prohibition. Today, fifth generation Nantucketer Phil Grant is an alert ninety- six-year-old retired fisherman and carpenter who ran the first Nantucket Seafood market and clam bar on Old South Wharf before helping start and build the Miacomet Golf Course. These days he lives near the course with his wife of sixty-eight years, Peggy, and reads voraciously. He is one of the last living links to the great bygone whaling era of Nantucket.
My great-grandfather retired at age sixty-six; he had been a cabin boy since age twelve,” Phil Grant says. His great-grandmother, having a mind of her own, did not like being left behind when her husband undertook voyages that lasted three or four years. “My great-grandmother, Nancy J. Weir, shipped on a merchant ship from New Bed- ford to Auckland, New Zealand, and she waited there for him because she knew his rotation,” Phil recounts. “She was on harbor when he arrived. He must have been a surprised boy.”
Of their three children who were all born and all grew up at sea, Phil’s grandfather George was the baby. Captain Charles Grant’s ship at the time was the Horacio. A 1989 issue of the Nantucket Historical Association Quarterly written by Phil’s aunt, Nancy Grant Adams, recounts his grandfather George’s birth in the hospital tent of the British consul in the port of Apia on the island of Upolu, Samoa. Three weeks later when it was time for the voyage to resume, the ship’s log of November 17, 1857 reads, “All hands were employed in getting ready for the sea, getting off yams, bananas, wood, pigs and babies…” Baby Georgie was brought aboard by a native woman who had ceremoniously wrapped him in a banana leaf. “It was considered a good omen,” Phil Grant says.
Phil’s great-grandfather Charles, who once had a “mansion” on Orange Street, was a master whaler who was given a share of the profits of all his ships’ bounties. Phil Grant grew up hearing about his great-grandfather’s fortune won and lost. In her book, Fifty Famous Nantucketers, Paula Lundy Levy writes, “His record was 30,000 barrels of oil while as an officer and 22,000 barrels more as master, besides 12,000 pounds of whalebone and eighteen pounds of ambergris. In spite of the fortunes he made, Capt. Grant died a poor man. He was called the most charitable man who ever trod the deck of a ship.”
“Kids used to wait for him at the top of Main Street because he would put his hands in his pockets, turn them inside out and the money would go flying,” Phil says. “Or a sailor would come to him, ‘Captain Grant I’m so and so,’ and he would want to build a house. In those days it cost $600 to build a two story wood house and my great grandfather would say, ‘You were a fine sailor,’ and he’d reach in his pocket and wrote ‘em a check for $600 and that’s how he wound up broke.”
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