Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/April 1899/Life on a South Sea Whaler

LIFE ON A SOUTH SEA WHALER.[1]

By FRANK T. BULLEN.

CACHALOTS, or sperm whales, must have been captured on the coasts of Europe in a desultory way from a very early date, by the incidental allusions to the prime products spermaceti and ambergris which are found in so many ancient writers. Shakespeare's reference—"The sovereign'st thing on earth was parmaceti for an inward bruise"—will be familiar to most people, as well as Milton's mention of the delicacies at Satan's feast—"Grisamber steamed"—not to carry quotation any further.

But in the year 1690 the brave and hardy fishermen of the northeast coasts of North America established that systematic pursuit of the cachalot which has thriven so wonderfully ever since, although it must be confessed that the last few years have witnessed a serious decline in this great branch of trade.

For many years the American colonists completely engrossed this branch of the whale fishery, contentedly leaving to Great Britain and the continental nations the monopoly of the northern or arctic fisheries, while they cruised the stormy, if milder, seas around their own shores.

As, however, the number of ships engaged increased, it was inevitable that the known grounds should become exhausted, and in 1788, Messrs. Enderby's ship, the Emilia, first ventured round Cape Horn, as the pioneer of a greater trade than ever. The way once pointed out, other ships were not slow to follow, until, in 1819, the British whale ship Syren opened up the till then unexplored tract of ocean in the western part of the North Pacific, afterward familiarly known as the "Coast of Japan." From these teeming waters alone, for many years an average annual catch of forty thousand barrels of oil was taken, which, at the average price of £8 per barrel, will give some idea of the value of the trade generally.

From the crushing blow of the civil war the American sperm-whale fishery has never fully recovered. When the writer was in the trade, some twenty-two years ago, it was credited with a fleet of between three and four hundred sail; now it may be doubted whether the numbers reach an eighth of that amount. A rigid conservatism of method hinders any revival of the industry, which is practically conducted to-day as it was fifty or even a hundred years ago; and it is probable that another decade will witness the final extinction of what was once one of the most important maritime industries in the world.

In the following pages an attempt has been made—it is believed for the first time—to give an account of the cruise of a South Sea whaler from the seaman's standpoint. Its aim is to present to the general reader a simple account of the methods employed and the dangers met with in a calling about which the great mass of the public knows absolutely nothing.

At the age of eighteen, after a sea experience of six years from the time when I dodged about London streets, a ragged Arab, with wits sharpened by the constant fight for food, I found myself roaming the streets of New Bedford, Massachusetts.

My money was all gone, I was hungry for a ship; and so, when a long, keen-looking man with a goatlike beard, and mouth stained with dry tobacco juice, hailed me one afternoon at the street corner, I answered very promptly, scenting a berth. "Lookin' fer a ship, stranger?" said he. "Yes; do you want a hand?" said I anxiously. He made a funny little sound something like a pony's whinny, then answered: "Wall, I should surmise that I want between fifty and sixty hands, ef yew kin lay me onto 'em; but, kem along, every dreep's a drop, an' yew seem likely enough." With that he turned and led the way until we reached a building, around which was gathered one of the most nondescript crowds I had ever seen. There certainly did not appear to be a sailor among them—not so much by their rig, though that is not a great deal to go by, but by their actions and speech. However, I signed and passed on, engaged to go I knew not where, in some ship I did not know even the name of, in which I was to receive I did not know how much or how little for my labor, nor how long I was going to be away.

From the time we signed the articles, we were never left to ourselves. Truculent-looking men accompanied us to our several boarding houses, paid our debts for us, finally bringing us by boat to a ship lying out in the bay. As we passed under her stern, I road the name Cachalot, of New Bedford; but as soon as we ranged alongside, I realized that I was booked for the sailor's horror—a cruise in a whaler. Badly as I wanted to get to sea, I had not bargained for this, and would have run some risks to get ashore again; but they took no chances, so we were all soon aboard. Before going forward, I took a comprehensive glance around, and saw that I was on board of a vessel belonging to a type which has almost disappeared off the face of the waters. A more perfect contrast to the trim-built English clipper ships that I had been accustomed to I could hardly imagine. She was one of a class characterized by sailors as "built by the mile, and cut off in lengths as you want 'em," bow and stern almost alike, masts standing straight as broomsticks, and bowsprit soaring upward at an angle of about forty-five degrees. She was as old-fashioned in her rig as in her hull. Right in the center of the deck, occupying a space of about ten feet by eight, was a square erection of brickwork, upon which my wondering gaze rested longest, for I had not the slightest idea what it could be. But I was rudely roused from my meditations by the harsh voice of one of the officers, who shouted, "Naow then, git below an' stow yer dunnage, 'n look lively up agin!" Tumbling down the steep ladder, I entered the gloomy den which was to be for so long my home, finding it fairly packed with my shipmates. The whole space was undivided by partition, but I saw at once that black men and white had separated themselves, the blacks taking the port side and the whites the starboard. Finding a vacant bunk by the dim glimmer of the ancient teapot lamp that hung amidships, giving out as much smoke as light, I hurriedly shifted my coat for a "jumper" or blouse, put on an old cap, and climbed into the fresh air again. Even my seasoned head was feeling bad with the villainous reek of the place. I had hardly reached the deck when I was confronted by a negro, the biggest I ever saw in my life. He looked me up and down for a moment, then opening his ebony features in a wide smile, he said: "Great snakes! why, here's a sailor man for sure! Guess thet's so, ain't it, Johnny?" I said "yes" very curtly, for I hardly liked his patronizing air; but he snapped me up short with "yes, sir, when yew speak to me, yew blank limejuicer. I'se de fourf mate of dis yar ship, en my name's Mistah Jones, 'n yew jest freeze on to dat ar, ef yew want ter lib long 'n die happy. See, sonny?" I saw, and answered promptly, "I beg your pardon, sir, I didn't know." "Ob cawse yew didn't know, dat's all right, little Britisher; naow jest skip aloft 'n loose dat fore-taupsle." "Ay, ay, sir," I answered cheerily, springing at once into the fore-rigging and up the ratlines like a monkey, but not too fast to hear him chuckle, "Dat's a smart kiddy, I bet." On deck I could see a crowd at the windlass heaving up anchor. I said to myself, "They don't waste any time getting this packet away." Evidently they were not anxious to test any of the crew's swimming powers. They were wise, for had she remained at anchor that night I verily believe some of the poor wretches would have tried to escape.

The anchor came aweigh, the sails were sheeted home, and I returned on deck to find the ship gathering way for the heads, fairly started on her long voyage.

Before nightfall we were fairly out to sea, and the ceremony of dividing the crew into watches was gone through. I found myself in the chief mate's or "port" watch (they called it "larboard," a term I had never heard used before, it having long been obsolete in merchant ships), though the huge negro fourth mate seemed none too well pleased that I was not under his command, his being the starboard watch under the second mate.

I was pounced upon next morning by "Mistah" Jones, the fourth mate, whom I heard addressed familiarly as "Goliath" and "Anak" by his brother officers, and ordered to assist him in rigging the "crow'snest" at the main royal-mast head. It was a simple affair. There were a pair of cross-trees fitted to the mast, upon which was secured a tiny platform about a foot wide on each side of the mast, while above this foothold a couple of padded hoops like a pair of giant spectacles were secured at a little higher than a man's waist. When all was fast one could creep up on the platform, through the hoop, and, resting his arms upon the latter, stand comfortably and gaze around, no matter how vigorously the old barky plunged and kicked beneath him. From that lofty eerie I had a comprehensive view of the vessel. She was about three hundred and fifty tons and full ship-rigged—that is to say, she carried square sails on all three masts. Her deck was flush fore and aft, the only obstructions being the brick-built "try-works" in the waist, the galley, and cabin skylight right aft by the taffrail. Her bulwarks were set thickly round with clumsy-looking wooden cranes, from which depended five boats. Two more boats were secured bottom up upon a gallows aft, so she seemed to be well supplied in that direction.

The weather being fine, with a steady northeast wind blowing, so that the sails required no attention, work proceeded steadily all the morning. The oars were sorted,-examined for flaws, and placed in the boats; the whale line, Manilla rope like yellow silk, an inch and a half round, was brought on deck, stretched, and coiled down with the greatest care into tubs holding, some two hundred fathoms, and others one hundred fathoms each. New harpoons were fitted to poles of rough but heavy wood, without any attempt at neatness but every attention to strength. The shape of these weapons was not, as is generally thought, that of an arrow, but rather like an arrow with one huge barb, the upper part of which curved out from the shaft. The whole of the barb turned on a stout pivot of steel, but was kept in line with the shaft by a tiny wooden peg which passed through barb and shaft, being then cut off smoothly on both sides. The point of the harpoon had at one side a wedge-shaped edge, ground to razor keenness; the other side was flat. The shaft, about thirty inches long, was of the best malleable iron, so soft that it would tie into a knot and straighten out again without fracture. Three harpoons, or "irons" as they were always called, were placed in each boat, fitted one above the other in the starboard bow, the first for use being always one unused before. Opposite to them in the boat were fitted three lances for the purpose of killing whales, the harpoons being only the means by which the boat was attached to a fish, and quite useless to inflict a fatal wound. These lances were slender spears of malleable iron about four feet long, with oval or heart-shaped points of fine steel about two inches broad, their edges kept keen as a surgeon's lancet. By means of a socket at the other end they were attached to neat handles, or "lance poles," about as long again, the whole weapon being thus about eight feet in length, and furnished with a light line, or "lance warp," for the purpose of drawing it back again when it had been darted at a whale. The other furniture of a boat comprised five oars of varying lengths from sixteen to nine feet, one great steering oar of nineteen feet, a mast and two sails of great area for so small a craft, spritsail shape; two tubs of whale line containing together eigheen hundred feet, a keg of drinking water, and another long, narrow one with a few biscuits, a lantern, candles and matches therein; a bucket and "piggin" for baling, a small spade, a flag or "wheft," a shoulder bomb gun and ammunition, two knives, and two small axes. A rudder hung outside by the stern.

With all this gear, although snugly stowed, a boat looked so loaded that I could not help wondering how six men would be able to work in her; but, like most "deep-water" sailors, I knew very little about boating. I was going to learn.

The reports I had always heard of the laziness prevailing on board whale ships were now abundantly falsified. From dawn to dark work went on without cessation. Everything was rubbed and scrubbed and scoured until no speck or soil could be found; indeed, no gentleman's yacht or man-of-war is kept more spotlessly clean than was the Cachalot.

On the fourth day after leaving port we were all busy as usual except the four men in the "crow's-nests," when a sudden cry of "Porps! porps!" brought everything to a standstill. A large school of porpoises had just joined us, in their usual clownish fashion, rolling and tumbling around the bows as the old barky wallowed along, surrounded by a wide ellipse of snowy foam. All work was instantly suspended, and active preparations made for securing a few of these frolicsome fellows. A "block," or pulley, was hung out at the bowsprit end, a whale line passed through it and "bent" (fastened) on to a harpoon. Another line with a running "bowline," or slip noose, was also passed out to the bowsprit end, being held there by one man in readiness. Then one of the harpooners ran out along the back ropes, which keep the jib boom down, taking his stand beneath the bowsprit with the harpoon ready. Presently he raised his iron and followed the track of a rising porpoise with its point until the creature broke water. At the same instant the weapon left his grasp, apparently without any force behind it; but we on deck, holding the line, soon found that our excited hauling lifted a big vibrating body clean out of the smother beneath. "'Vast hauling!" shouted the mate, while, as the porpoise hung dangling, the harpooner slipped the ready bowline over his body, gently closing its grip round the "small" by the broad tail. Then we hauled on the noose line, slacking away the harpoon, and in a minute had our prize on deck. He was dragged away at once and the operation repeated. Again and again we hauled them in, until the fore part of the deck was alive with the kicking, writhing sea pigs, at least twenty of them. All hands were soon busy skinning the blubber from the bodies. Porpoises have no skin—that is, hide—the blubber or coating of lard which incases them being covered by a black substance as thin as tissue paper. The porpoise hide of the bootmaker is really leather, made from the skin of the Beluga, or "white whale," which is found only in the far north. The cover was removed from the "try-works" amidships, revealing two gigantic pots set in a frame of brickwork side by side, capable of holding two hundred gallons each—such a cooking apparatus as might have graced a Brobdingnagian kitchen. Beneath the pots was the very simplest of furnaces, hardly as elaborate as the familiar copper hole sacred to washing day. Square funnels of sheet iron were loosely fitted to the flues, more as a protection against the oil boiling over into the fire than to carry away the smoke, of which from the peculiar nature of the fuel there was very little. At one side of the try-works was a large wooden vessel, or "hopper," to contain the raw blubber; at the other, a copper cistern or cooler of about three hundred gallons capacity, into which the prepared oil was baled to cool off, preliminary to its being poured into the casks. Beneath the furnaces was a space as large as the whole area of the try-works, about a foot deep, which, when the fires were lighted, was filled with water to prevent the deck from burning.

It may be imagined that the blubber from our twenty porpoises made but a poor show in one of the pots; nevertheless, we got a barrel of very excellent oil from them. The fires were fed with "scrap," or pieces of blubber from which the oil had been boiled, some of which had been reserved from the previous voyage. They burned with a fierce and steady blaze, leaving but a trace of ash. I was then informed by one of the harpooners that no other fuel was ever used for boiling blubber at any time, there being always amply sufficient for the purpose.

We were now in the haunts of the sperm whale, or "cachalot," a brilliant lookout being continually kept for any signs of their appearing. One officer and a foremast hand were continually on watch during the day in the main crow's-nest, one harpooner and a seaman in the fore one. A bounty of ten pounds of tobacco was offered to whoever should first report a whale, should it be secured; consequently there were no sleepy eyes up there.

At last, one beautiful day, the boats were lowered and manned, and away went the greenies on their first practical lesson in the business of the voyage. There were two greenies in each boat, they being so arranged that whenever one of them "caught a crab," which of course was about every other stroke, his failure made little difference to the boat's progress. They learned very fast under the terrible imprecations and storm of blows from the iron-fisted and iron-hearted officers, so that before the day was out the skipper was satisfied of our ability to deal with a "fish" should he be lucky enough to "raise" one. I was, in virtue of my experience, placed at the after oar in the mate's boat, where it was my duty to attend to the "main sheet" when the sail was set, where also I had the benefit of the lightest oar except the small one used by the harpooner in the bow.

The very next day after our first exhaustive boat drill, a school of "blackfish" was reported from aloft, and with great glee the officers prepared for what they considered a rattling day's fun.

The blackfish (Phocœna sp.) is a small toothed whale, not at all unlike a miniature cachalot, except that its head is rounded at the front, while its jaw is not long and straight, but bowed. It is as frolicsome as the porpoise, gamboling about in schools of from twenty to fifty or more, as if really delighted to be alive. Its average size is from ten to twenty feet long and seven or eight feet in girth; weight, from one to three tons. Blubber about three inches thick, while the head is almost all oil, so that a good rich specimen will make between one and two barrels of oil of medium quality.

We lowered and left the ship, pulling right toward the school, the noise they were making in their fun effectually preventing them from hearing our approach. It is etiquette to allow the mate's boat first place, unless his crew is so weak as to be unable to hold their own; but as the mate always has first pick of the men this seldom happens. So, as usual, we were first, and soon I heard the order given, "Stand up, Louey, and let 'em have it!" Sure enough, here we were right among them. Louis let drive, "fastening" a whopper about twenty feet long. The injured animal plunged madly forward, accompanied by his fellows, while Louis calmly bent another iron to a "short warp," or piece of whale line, the loose end of which he made a bowline with round the main line which was fast to the "fish." Then he fastened another "fish," and the queer sight was seen of these two monsters each trying to flee in opposite directions, while the second one ranged about alarmingly as his "bridle" ran along the main line. Another one was secured in the same way, then the game was indeed great. The school had by this time taken the alarm and cleared out, but the other boats were all fast to fish, so that didn't matter. Now, at the rate our "game" were going, it would evidently be a long while before they died, although, being so much smaller than a whale proper, a harpoon will often kill them at a stroke. Yet they were now so tangled or "snarled erp," as the mate said, that it was no easy matter to lance them without great danger of cutting the line. However, we hauled up as close to them as we dared, and the harpooner got a good blow in, which gave the biggest of the three "Jesse," as he said, though why "Jesse" was a stumper. Anyhow, it killed him promptly, while almost directly after another one saved further trouble by passing in his own checks. But he sank at the same time, drawing the first one down with him, so that we were in considerable danger of having to cut them adrift or be swamped. The "wheft" was waved thrice as an urgent signal to the ship to come to our assistance with all speed, but in the meantime our interest lay in the surviving blackfish keeping alive. Should he die and, as was most probable, sink, we should certainly have to cut and loose the lot, tools included.

We waited in grim silence while the ship came up, so slowly, apparently, that she hardly seemed to move, but really at a good pace of about four knots an hour, which for her was not at all bad. She got alongside of us at last, and we passed up the bight of our line, our fish all safe, very much pleased with ourselves, especially when we found that the other boats had only five between the three of them.

Chain slings were passed around the carcasses, the end of the "fall," or tackle rope, was taken to the windlass, and we hove away cheerily, lifting the monsters right on deck. A mountainous pile they made. After dinner all hands turned to again to "flench" the blubber and prepare for trying out. This was a heavy job, keeping us busy until it was quite dark, the latter part of the work being carried on by the light of a "cresset," the flames of which were fed with "scrap," which blazed brilliantly, throwing a big glare over all the ship. The last of the carcasses was launched overboard by about eight o'clock that evening, but not before some vast junks of beef had been cut off and hung up in the rigging for our food supply.

"Trying out" went on busily all night, and by nightfall of the next day the ship had resumed her normal appearance, and we were a tun and a quarter of oil to the good. Blackfish oil is of medium quality, but I learned that, according to the rule of "roguery in all trades," it was the custom to mix quantities such as we had just obtained with better class whale oil, and thus get a much higher price than it was really worth.

We had now been eight days out, having had nothing, so far, but steady breezes and fine weather. As it was late autumn—the first week in October—I rather wondered at this, for even in my brief experience I had learned to dread a "fall" voyage across the "Western Ocean."

Gradually the face of the sky changed, and the feel of the air, from balmy and genial, became raw and cheerless. The little wave tops broke short off and blew backward, apparently against the wind, while the old vessel had an uneasy, unnatural motion, caused by a long, new swell rolling athwart the existing set of the sea.

We were evidently in for a fair specimen of Western Ocean weather, but the clumsy-looking, old-fashioned Cachalot made no more fuss over it than one of the long-winged sea birds that floated around, intent only upon snapping up any stray scraps that might escape from us. Higher rose the wind, heavier rolled the sea, yet never a drop of water did we ship, nor did anything about the deck betoken what a heavy gale was blowing. During the worst of the weather, and just after the wind had shifted back into the northeast, making an uglier cross sea than ever get up, along comes an immense four-masted iron ship homeward bound. She was staggering under a veritable mountain of canvas, fairly burying her bows in the foam at every forward drive, and actually wetting the clews of the upper topsails in the smothering masses of spray, that every few minutes almost hid her hull from sight.

It was a splendid picture; but—for the time—I felt glad I was not on board of her. In a very few minutes she was out of our ken, followed by the admiration of all. Then came, from the other direction, a huge steamship, taking no more notice of the gale than as if it were calm. Straight through the sea she rushed, dividing the mighty rollers to the heart, and often bestriding three seas at once, the center one spreading its many tons of foaming water fore and aft, so that from every orifice spouted the seething brine. Compared with these greyhounds of the wave, we resembled nothing so much as some old lightship bobbing serenely around, as if part and parcel of the mid-Atlantic. The gale gradually blew itself out, leaving behind only a long and very heavy swell to denote the deep-reaching disturbance that the ocean had endured. And now we were within the range of the sargasso weed, that mysterious fucus that makes the ocean look like some vast kayfield, and keeps the sea from rising, no matter how high the wind. It fell a dead calm, and the harpooners amused themselves by dredging up great masses of the weed, and turning out the many strange creatures abiding therein.

We were all gathered about the fo'lk'sle scuttle one evening, a few days after the gale referred to above, and the question of whale-fishing came up for discussion. Until that time, strange as it may seem, no word of this, the central idea of all our minds, had been mooted. Every man seemed to shun the subject, although we were in daily expectation of being called upon to take an active part in whale-fighting. Once the ice was broken, nearly all had something to say about it, and very nearly as many addle-headed opinions were ventilated as at a Colney Hatch debating society. For we none of us knew anything about it. It was Saturday evening, and while at home people were looking forward to a day's respite from work and care, I felt that the coming day, though never taken much notice of on board, was big with the probabilities of strife such as I at least had at present no idea of—so firmly was I possessed by the prevailing feeling.

The night was very quiet. A gentle breeze was blowing, and the sky was of the usual "trade" character—that is, a dome of dark blue fringed at the horizon with peaceful cumulus clouds, almost motionless. I turned in at 4 a. m. from the middle watch and, as usual, slept like a babe. Suddenly I started wide awake, a long, mournful sound sending a thrill to my very heart. As I listened breathlessly, other sounds of the same character but in different tones joined in, human voices monotonously intoning in long-drawn-out expirations the single word "bl-o-o-o-ow." Then came a hurricane of noise overhead, and adjurations in no gentle language to the sleepers to "tumble up lively there, no skulking, sperm whales." At last, then, fulfilling all the presentiments of yesterday, the long-dreaded moment had arrived. Happily, there was no time for hesitation; in less than two minutes we were all on deck, and hurrying to our respective boats. The skipper was in the main crow's-nest with his binoculars. Presently he shouted: "Naow then, Mr. Count, lower away soon's y'like. Small pod o' cows, an' one 'r two bulls layin' off to west'ard of 'em." Down went the boats into the water quietly enough; we all scrambled in and shoved off. A stroke or two of the oars were given to get clear of the ship and one another, then oars were shipped and up went the sails. As I took my allotted place at the main-sheet, and the beautiful craft started off like some big bird, Mr. Count leaned forward, saying impressively-to me: "Y'r a smart youngster, an' I've kinder took t'yer; but don't ye look ahead an' get gallied, 'r I'll knock ye stiff wi' th' tiller; y'hear me? W don't ye dare to make thet sheet fast, 'r ye'll die so sudden y' won't know whar y'r hurted." I said as cheerfully as I could, "All right, sir," trying to look unconcerned, telling myself not to be a coward, and all sorts of things; but the cold truth is that I was scared almost to death, because I didn't know what was coming. However, I did the best thing under the circumstances, obeyed orders and looked steadily astern, or up into the bronzed impassive face of my chief, who towered above me, scanning with eagle eyes the sea ahead. The other boats were coming flying along behind us, spreading wider apart as they came, while in the bows of each stood the harpooner with his right hand on his first iron, which lay ready, pointing over the bow in a raised fork of wood called the "crutch."

All of a sudden, at a motion of the chief's hand, the peak of our mainsail was dropped, and the boat swung up into the wind, laying "hove to," almost stationary. The centerboard was lowered to stop her drifting to leeward, although I can not say it made much difference that ever I saw. Now, what's the matter? I thought, when to my amazement the chief addressing me said, "Wonder why we've hauled up, don't ye?" "Yes, sir, I do," said I. "Wall," said he, "the fish hev sounded, an' 'ef we run over 'em, we've seen the last ov 'em. So we wait awhile till they rise agin, 'n then we'll prob'ly git thar' 'r thareabouts before they sound agin." With this explanation I had to be content, although if it be no clearer to my readers than it then was to me, I shall have to explain myself more fully later on. Silently we lay, rocking lazily upon the gentle swell, no other word being spoken by any one. At last Louis, the harpooner, gently breathed "Blo-o-o-w"; and there, sure enough, not half a mile away on the lee beam, was a little bushy cloud of steam apparently rising from the sea. At almost the same time as we kept away all the other boats did likewise, and just then, catching sight of the ship, the reason for this apparently concerted action was explained. At the mainmast head of the ship was a square blue flag, and the ensign at the peak was being dipped. These were signals well understood and promptly acted upon by those in charge of the boats, who were thus guided from a point of view at least one hundred feet above the sea.

"Stand up, Louey," the mate murmured softly. I only just stopped myself in time from turning my head to see why the order was given. Suddenly there was a bump, at the same moment the mate yelled, "Give't to him, Louey, give't to him!" and to me, "Haul that main sheet, naow haul, why don't ye?" I hauled it flat aft, and the boat shot up into the wind, rubbing sides as she did so with what to my troubled sight seemed an enormous mass of black India rubber floating. As we crawled up into the wind, the whale went into convulsions befitting his size and energy. He raised a gigantic tail on high, thrashing the water with deafening blows, rolling at the same time from side to side until the surrounding sea was white with froth. I felt in an agony lest we should be crushed under one of those fearful strokes, for Mr. Count appeared to be oblivious of possible danger, although we seemed to be now drifting back on to the writhing leviathan. In the agitated condition of the sea it was a task of no ordinary difficulty to unship the tall mast, which was of course the first thing to be done. After a desperate struggle, and a narrow escape from falling overboard of one of the men, we got the long "stick," with the sail bundled around it, down and "fleeted" aft, where it was secured by the simple means of sticking the "heel" under the after thwart, two thirds of the mast extending out over the stern. Meanwhile, we had certainly been in a position of the greatest danger, our immunity from damage being unquestionably due to anything but precaution taken to avoid it.

By the time the oars were handled, and the mate had exchanged places with the harpooner, our friend the enemy had "sounded"—that is, he had gone below for a change of scene, marveling, no doubt, what strange thing had befallen him. Agreeably to the accounts which I, like most boys, had read of the whale-fishery, I looked for the rushing of the line round the loggerhead (a stout wooden post built into the boat aft), to raise a cloud of smoke with occasional bursts of flame; so, as it began to slowly surge round the post, I timidly asked the harpooner whether I should throw any water on it. "Wot for?" growled he, as he took a couple more turns with it. Not knowing "what for," and hardly liking to quote my authorities here, I said no more, but waited events. "Hold him up, Louey, hold him up, cain't ye?" shouted the mate, and to my horror, down went the nose of the boat almost under water, while at the mate's order everybody scrambled aft into the elevated stern sheets.

The line sang quite a tune as it was grudgingly allowed to surge round the loggerhead, filling one with admiration at the strength shown by such a small rope. This sort of thing went on for about twenty minutes, in which time we quite emptied the large tub and began on the small one.

Suddenly our boat fell backward from her "slantindicular" position with a jerk, and the mate immediately shouted, "Haul line, there! look lively, now! you—so on, etcetera, etcetera" (he seemed to invent new epithets on every occasion). The line came in hand over hand, and was coiled in a wide heap in the stern sheets, for, silky as it was, it could not be expected in its wet state to lie very close. As it came flying in, the mate kept a close gaze upon the water immediately beneath us, apparently for the first glimpse of our antagonist. When the whale broke water, however, he was some distance off, and apparently as quiet as a lamb. Now, had Mr. Count been a prudent or less ambitious man, our task would doubtless have been an easy one, or comparatively so; but, being a little over-grasping, he got us all into serious trouble. We were hauling up to our whale in order to lance it, and the mate was standing, lance in hand, only waiting to get near enough, when up comes a large whale right alongside of our boat, so close, indeed, that I might have poked my finger in his little eye, if I had chosen. The sight of that whale at liberty, and calmly taking stock of us like that, was too much for the mate. He lifted his lance and hurled it at the visitor, in whose broad flank it sank, like a knife into butter, right up to the pole-hitches. The recipient disappeared like a flash, but before one had time to think, there was an awful crash beneath us, and the mate shot up into the air like a bomb from a mortar. He came down in a sitting posture on the mast thwart; but as he fell, the whole framework of the boat collapsed like a derelict umbrella. Louis quietly chopped the line and severed our connection with the other whale, while in accordance with our instructions we drew each man his oar across the boat and lashed it firmly down with a piece of line spliced to each thwart for the purpose. This simple operation took but a minute, but before it was completed we were all up to our necks in the sea—still in the boat, it is true, and therefore not in such danger of drowning as if we were quite adrift; but, considering that the boat was reduced to a mere bundle of loose planks, I, at any rate, was none too comfortable. Now, had he known it, was the whale's golden opportunity; but he, poor wretch, had had quite enough of our company, and cleared off without any delay, wondering, no doubt, what fortunate accident had rid him of our very unpleasant attentions.

I was assured that we were all as safe as if we were on board the ship, to which I answered nothing; but, like Jack's parrot, I did some powerful thinking. Every little wave that came along swept clean over our heads, sometimes coming so suddenly as to cut a breath in half. If the wind should increase—but no—I wouldn't face the possibility of such a disagreeable thing. I was cool enough now in a double sense, for, although we were in the tropics, we soon got thoroughly chilled.

Help came at last, and we were hauled alongside. Long exposure had weakened us to such an extent that it was necessary to hoist us on board, especially the mate, whose "sudden stop," when he returned to us after his little aërial excursion, had shaken his sturdy frame considerably, a state of body which the subsequent soaking had by no means improved. In my innocence I imagined that we should be commiserated for our misfortunes by Captain Slocum, and certainly be relieved from further duties until we were a little recovered from the rough treatment we had just undergone. But I never made a greater mistake. The skipper cursed us all (except the mate, whose sole fault the accident undoubtedly was) with a fluency and vigor that was, to put it mildly, discouraging.

A couple of slings were passed around the boat, by means of which she was carefully hoisted on board, a mere dilapidated bundle of sticks and raffle of gear. She was at once removed aft out of the way, the business of cutting in the whale claiming precedence over everything else just then. The preliminary proceedings consisted of rigging the "cutting stage." This was composed of two stout planks a foot wide and ten feet long, the inner ends of which were suspended by strong ropes over the ship's side about four feet from the water, while the outer extremities were upheld by tackles from the main rigging, and a small crane abreast the try-works.

These planks were about thirty feet apart, their two outer ends being connected by a massive plank which was securely bolted to them. A handrail about as high as a man's waist, supported by light iron stanchions, ran the full length of this plank on the side nearest the ship, the whole fabric forming an admirable standing place whence the officers might, standing in comparative comfort, cut and carve at the great mass below to their hearts' content.

So far the prize had been simply held alongside by the whale line, which at death had been "rove" through a hole cut in the solid gristle of the tail; but now it became necessary to secure the carcass to the ship in some more permanent fashion. Therefore, a massive chain like a small ship's cable was brought forward, and in a very ingenious way, by means of a tiny buoy and a hand lead, passed round the body, one end brought through a ring in the other, and hauled upon until it fitted tight round the "small" or part of the whale next the broad spread of the tail. The free end of the fluke chain was then passed in through a mooring pipe forward, firmly secured to a massive bitt at the heel of the bowsprit (the fluke-chain bitt), and all was ready.

The first thing to be done was to cut the whale's head off. This operation, involving the greatest amount of labor in the whole of the cutting in, was taken in hand by the first and second mates, who, armed with twelve-foot spades, took their station upon the stage, leaned over the handrail to steady themselves, and plunged their weapons vigorously down through the massive neck of the animal—if neck it could be said to have—following a well-defined crease in the blubber. At the same time the other officers passed a heavy chain sling around the long, narrow lower jaw, hooking one of the big cutting tackles into it, the "fall" of which was then taken to the windlass and hove tight, turning the whale on her back. A deep cut was then made on both sides of the rising jaw, the windlass was kept going, and gradually the whole of the throat was raised high enough for a hole to be cut through its mass, into which the strap of the second cutting tackle was inserted and secured by passing a huge toggle of oak through its eye. The second tackle was then hove taut, and the jaw, with a large piece of blubber attached, was cut off from the body with a boarding knife, a tool not unlike a cutlass blade set into a three-footlong wooden handle.

Upon being severed the whole piece swung easily inboard and was lowered on deck. The fast tackle was now hove upon while the third mate on the stage cut down diagonally into the blubber on the body, which the purchase ripped off in a broad strip or "blanket" about five feet wide and a foot thick. Meanwhile the other two officers carved away vigorously at the head, varying their labors by cutting a hole right through the snout. This, when completed, received a heavy chain for the purpose of securing the head. When the blubber had been about half stripped off the body, a halt was called in order that the work of cutting off the head might be finished, for it was a task of incredible difficulty. It was accomplished at last, and the mass floated astern by a stout rope, after which the windlass pawls clattered merrily, the "blankets" rose in quick succession, and were cut off and lowered into the square of the main hatch or "blubber room." A short time sufficed to strip off the whole of the body blubber, and when at last the tail was reached, the backbone was cut through, the huge mass of flesh floating away to feed the innumerable scavengers of the sea. ]STo sooner was the last of the blubber lowered into the hold than the hatches were put on and the head hauled up alongside. Both tackles were secured to it and all hands took to the windlass levers. This was a small cow whale of about thirty barrels—that is, yielding that amount of oil—so it was just possible to lift the entire head on board; but as it weighed as much as three full-grown elephants, it was indeed a heavy lift for even our united forces, trying our tackle to the utmost. The weather was very fine, and the ship rolled but little; even then, the strain upon the mast was terrific, and right glad was I when at last the immense cube of fat, flesh, and bone was eased inboard and gently lowered on deck.

As soon as it was secured the work of dividing it began. From the snout a triangular mass was cut, which was more than half pure spermaceti. This substance was contained in spongy cells held together by layers of dense white fiber, exceedingly tough and elastic, and called by the whalers "white horse." The whole mass, or "junk," as it is called, was hauled away to the ship's side and firmly lashed to the bulwarks for the time being, so that it might not "take charge" of the deck during the rest of the operations.

The upper part of the head was now slit open lengthwise, disclosing an oblong cistern or "case" full of liquid spermaceti, clear as water. This was baled out with buckets into a tank, concreting as it cooled into a waxlike substance, bland and tasteless. There being now nothing more remaining about the skull of any value, the lashings were loosed, and the first leeward roll sent the great mass plunging overboard with a mighty splash. It sank like a stone, eagerly followed by a few small sharks that were hovering near.

As may be imagined, much oil was running about the deck, for so saturated was every part of the creature with it that it really gushed like water during the cutting-up process. None of it was allowed to run to waste, though, for the scupper holes which drain the deck were all carefully plugged, and as soon as the "junk" had been dissected all the oil was carefully "squeegeed" up and poured into the try-pots.

Two men were now told off as "blubber-room men," whose duty it became to go below and, squeezing themselves in as best they could between the greasy mass of fat, cut it up into "horse-pieces" about eighteen inches long and six inches square. Doing this, they became perfectly saturated with oil, as if they had taken a bath in a tank of it; for as the vessel rolled it was impossible to maintain a footing, and every fall was upon blubber running with oil. A machine of wonderful construction had been erected on deck in a kind of shallow trough about six feet long by four feet wide and a foot deep. At some remote period of time it had no doubt been looked upon as a triumph of ingenuity, a patent mincing machine. Its action was somewhat like that of a chaff-cutter, except that the knife was not attached to the wheel, and only rose and fell, since it was not required to cut right through the "horse-pieces" with which it was fed. It will be readily understood that, in order to get the oil quickly out of the blubber, it needs to be sliced as thin as possible, but for convenience in handling the refuse (which is the only fuel used) it is not chopped up in small pieces, but every "horse-piece" is very deeply scored as it were, leaving a thin strip to hold the slices together. This, then, was the order of work: Two harpooners attended the try-pots, replenishing them with minced blubber from the hopper at the port side, and baling out the sufficiently boiled oil into the great cooling tank on the starboard. One officer superintended the mincing, another exercised a general supervision over all. So we toiled watch and watch, six hours on and six off, the work never ceasing for an instant night or day. Though the work was hard and dirty, and the discomfort of being so continually wet through with oil great, there was only one thing dangerous about the whole business. That was the job of filling and shifting the huge casks of oil. Some of these were of enormous size, containing three hundred and fifty gallons when full, and the work of moving them about the greasy deck of a rolling ship was attended with a terrible amount of risk. For only four men at most could get fair hold of a cask, and when she took it into her silly old hull to start rolling, just as we had got one halfway across the deck, with nothing to grip your feet, and the knowledge that one stumbling man would mean a sudden slide of the ton and a half weight, and a little heap of mangled corpses somewhere in the lee scuppers—well, one always wanted to be very thankful when the lashings were safely passed.

The whale being a small one, as before noted, the whole business was over within three days, and the decks scrubbed and rescrubbed until they had quite regained their normal whiteness. The oil was poured by means of a funnel and long canvas hose into the casks stowed in the ground tier at the bottom of the ship, and the gear, all carefully cleaned and neatly "stopped up," stowed snugly away below again.

  1. From The Cruise of the Cachalot. By Frank T. Bullen. (Illustrated.) New York: D. Appleton and Company. Pp. 379.