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19th Century American Whaling

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W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. XXXIX, No. 4 (Apr 1874)
pp. 333-335.

A Tragic Incident of "Nor-West" Whaling. 333

. . . .



      We had been engaged for two hours, four boats' crews of us, in a fruitless chase after a right whale, who moved in a very eccentric orbit, popping up here and there in the most unexpected directions, and setting all calculations at defiance.

      "Shy as any finback!" said Mr. Cathcart, our mate, in whose boat I was bowman, "It beats all my figures, to prick for him. The Grand Turk'll have her boats down among us, directly, and they'll stand as good a chance as we."

      The Grand Turk was lying aback within half a mile of us, with her boats really in the water at the moment, but towing alongside under her lee. As she lay on the starboard tack we could only see one boat on her quarter, the other three being hidden, from our view in range of the ship's hull.

      Our own ship, the Janus, was a mile and a half to windward, running down. We had but a few minutes to wait, ere the whale again sent up his two diverging clouds of spray, or "forked spout," half a mile to leeward, directly astern of the Grand Turk.

334 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

      "Cake's all dough with us, for the present," said the mate. "Our neighbor will have a chance now to try him a while. Roll up sail, and be ready at your oars, in case he turns to windward."

      Out shot three boats, armed to the teeth, from under the Grand Turk's lee, and sped away swiftly towards the giant prey. The scene became in the highest degree exciting to us, as they drew nearer at each vigorous stroke of the paddles; even our breathing was suspended when the boatsteerer in the leading boat rose to his feet. Our enthusiasm was not unmixed with a feeling of vexation; for, after all our weary chasing and dodging, the prize was to be taken by another ship's crew, who, until now, had been lookers on.

      "He's fast!" cried half a dozen voices at once, as the iron was launched with the full power of a strong arm. A dash of "white water" flew high in air, and the fast boat started ahead with a sudden jerk, at race-horse speed, while her consorts took to their oars for a stern chase.

      "We may as well go aboard, now, and look for another," was the word that passed among us. There was one consolation – we should not have far to pull: for the Janus was already luffing to the wind, and five minutes would take us alongside.

      But up went a signal at the Grand Turk's gaff, and our ship again filled away, running down to close with her. What could be wanted? was now the question. Something, or such a time would not have been chosen for signalling a consort to come within speaking distance.

      "Hurrah! here he comes, right at us!" sung out the boatsteerer, who was standing erect in the head of the boat. The whale, after running a short time on the wind, had turned short about, and was now coming on a beeline which would bring him right through the gauntlet of our little fleet. Only one boat was fast, as yet, and the supporting boats, though pulling their best, were fast being left astern, as the monster rushed on, lashing the sea into fury, and snorting forth his blasts with a sound not unlike the ring of a brass kettle, as only a whale of the right species can do.

      Up and down with frantic haste went signals from both ships, the "pointers" at the mastheads were waved eagerly in the direction of the fast whale, and we were not long in making out, what we had half divined already, that our help was wanted to make a sure thing of the conflict. We knew already that the mate of the Grand Turk was off duty from sickness, and that she was thereby weakened by the loss of her crack whaleman. Old Captain Jeffreys was superannuated, and did not lower himself. He had hailed our captain, and agreed to "throw chances together" and share the proceeds. The signals, of course, were for us to attack.

      Affairs wore a new face at this discovery. From mere spectators, we were at once fired with all the eagerness of principals, as w« spread ourselves in open order to meet the whale "head-and-head." A slight deviation from his course brought him in the second mate's favor, and it was evident that the waist-boat would have the honor of drawing the next blood.

      It was a most critical moment for her crew when the tortured whale dashed past them, for he was throwing his flukes in air with a malicious sweep, as if feeling for his enemies. But Mr. Terry was not the man to hesitate. Besides, if he hesitated to wait for a better time in, he was destined to an inglorious stern chase. It was emphatically now or never.

      "Dart, Jack!" we beard him shout to his boatsteerer. We saw the iron flash, and the next instant we could see nothing but a cloud of white spray which filled the air. But we heard an ominous crash, and, as the "white water" cleared away, the whale had vanished, and the waist-boat, nearly full of water, and minus two of her oars, was still riding gallantly in the slick, with her crew all safe. Her line was spinning out rapidly at the chocks, with a peculiar humming noise which tells of a high degree of friction round the loggerhead; and the boat-buckets were doing their duty manfully in throwing out the superfluous water.

      "Are you badly stove?" was our first hail.

      "O no!" answered Mr. Terry, cheerfully, "only cracked a streak or two, and broke a couple of oars – that's all."

      "That's your good luck, then," muttered the mate. "The whale meant worse than that, when he swung for ye. Pull ahead, now, us, and stand by for the next chance when he breaks water."

      But again he laughed at our calculations; for he came up just out of reach, and started off directly in the wind's eye, at a rate which baffled the efforts of the officers in

A Tragic Incident of "Nor-West" Whaling. 335

the fast boats to haul up sufficiently near for using their lances. The rest of us had nothing for it but hard pulling, which barely sufficed to keep us at a respectful distance in the wake of the whale, who still appeared to retain his full vigor, having as yet received no serious wound.

      It was plain to be seen that the young third mate of the Grand Turk, in command of the boat which had first struck, was highly excited and indignant at the course taken by Captain Jeffreys in offering us half the whale to assist in his capture. Ambitious of distinguishing himself, he performed herculean labors in endeavoring to haul up to the whale. We could hear him urging his crew to exertion, and could even distinguish the language, much more forcible than chaste, which he employed to enforce his orders. After a time, the speed of the whale had somewhat slackened, exhausted as he necessarily was by his rush to windward; and, still hauling and holding on at every slaut, the young man had approached with his boat to within about fifteen fathoms of his mark. But, despairing of success in his efforts to get fairly abreast the whale's life, he now determined to try a shot with his gun. If he could put a bomb into him, "quartering," he might sicken him, so as to make him bring to, and so eager was he to accomplish this, before any other boat should have a chance to divide with him the honors of the day, that he showed almost the recklessness of insanity, in all his acts and speeches.

      The whaling-gun, used for shooting the bomb-lance, is a short heavy instrument of the blunderbuss style, which is raised to the shoulder for firing. The lance itself is a cone or rather pointed cylinder of cast-iron, containing a heavy charge of powder, with which a fuse is connected. The firing of the gun ignites the fuse, which explodes the bomb after it has entered the whale; the time being usually regulated to ten or fifteen seconds.

      Young Randall, the third mate, had put his gun carelessly under the head-sheets of the boat, with the hair-trigger set; a delicate arrangement, which required scarcely more than a feather's weight to start it. At the moment that he deemed most favorable, he suddenly stooped for his gun, at the same time inciting his men with loud voice and fierce gesture to continue their efforts.

      While still lying back at my oar, I naturally kept my face turned so as to see over my shoulder, and was looking directly at Mr. Randall when he stooped to grasp his gun. A quick report followed. I could see no more of him, he had dropped out of sight; but a cry, not of enthusiasm, but of horror, rose from the crews of both the fast boats.

      "My God! he's shot himself!" cried Mr. Cathcart, with blanched cheeks and starting eyes.

      In a moment more we were alongside of the boat, for his crew had of course, instantly cut the line by which they were attached to the whale. The unfortunate young officer was just breathing his last in a pool of his own blood, the cylinder of iron having passed completely through his body, as also through the side of the boat, which was of half inch cedar board. In his eagerness he had carelessly turned the gun muzzle toward him, while pulling it out from under the head-sheets, and a slight touch had started the hair-trigger. A glance was enough to satisfy us that we could be of no service; and while the boat, bearing the corpse of the youth, who but a moment before was so full of ambition and physical vigor, made her melancholy way on board, we continued in pursuit of the whale, which had held on his course, with our second mate's boat still in tow. But he soon showed signs of fatigue, and slacking up his pace, we were not long in overtaking him. Mr. Terry had got his boat freed of her dead weight of water, and had already given him a mortal wound before our irons were thrown. Other reinforcements quickly arrived, and with heavy hearts and hushed voices we took our prize in tow, and started on our return. Both ships had their flags at halfmast, and their topsails hanging in mourning festoons, as soon as the whale was secured; and nearly the whole of both crews were assembled on the maindeck of the Grand Turk, to pay the last sad offices to the mangled body of young Randall.

      With bowed heads we joined in the rude services pertaining to a sailor's burial by his shipmates, and then turned away to our duties, the same rough adventurers as before, though a little chastened at heart for the time being. To the soldier or seaman, who may be said to hold his life in his hand, impressions of pain or sorrow seem to be like those of childhood, evanescent and quickly forgotten.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: A Tragic Incident of "Nor-West" Whaling.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 39, No. 4 (Apr 1874)
Pages: 333-335