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An Old Whaler's Reminiscence.

W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. Vol. XLII, No. 5 (Nov 1875)
pp. 540-544.

540 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

An Old Whaler's Reminiscence.


When I was third mate of the "Rajah" of New Bedford, our first season in the Arctic seemed likely to prove a failure. We had met with no success so late as the first of August, and the captain got discouraged, saying he had waited long enough for the polar whales to "strike on," and we must up kites and go to the southward, for we could do better to finish out our season among the right whales in Bristol Bay. We made a mistake, as it proved; for the ships that stayed until September in Behring's Straits all got good cuts of oil. However, that's not to the purpose of my story.

      We came down into Bristol Bay and fell among a good many right whales near the Aleutian Islands; we usually call them the Fox Islands. We took three or four large whales during August, which gave us a good lift to help out our voyage. There were but few ships on the ground, and we might have done better but for the frequent spells of fog, which is one of the worst difficulties the northwest whaleman has to contend with. Many is the good whale that is lost because it is running too great a risk to hold on long after the ship is lost sight of; for no one knows when fog shuts down how long it will continue. It may lift again in half an hour, or it may be so thick for two or three days that you can't see the flying-jib-boom end.

      One day I got separated some distance from the other boats, and struck a cow right whale to windward of the ship. She ran me still further up in the wind's eye before I got a good chance at her with my lance; but in the excitement of the hour, I took little heed of time or distance. I hung on even after I had warning of the fog which was sweeping down upon me, for I was especially anxious to save my whale, both for my reputation's sake and for my pocket. With no senior officer near enough to communicate with me I was of course left to use my own discretion, and I confess I did not look for any signals from the ship. You know that young officers, especially, are apt to err on the side of rashness, rather than to incur the least suspicion of timidity or over-cautiousness.

      At last I got what I considered a good lance at the whale, and felt sure I had given her the death-wound, though she did not spout blood freely, the blast being yet strong and but slightly tinged. As the whale still continued lively, and worked to windward at a smart pace, my boatsteerer and indeed all my boat's crew began to remonstrate against the policy of holding on longer. I took a look around the horizon, the fog was impervious in every direction. I reflected that the lives of other men were entrusted to my care, and we were truly running greater risk than was prudent. With a sigh of disappointment, I drew the boat-knife from its sheath in the bow of the boat. A single blow on the line and our connection with the rich prize I had hoped to secure, was severed.

      "Lay her head round, Joe," said I to the boatsteerer. "Give me the sail, and get your compass out. Take your oars, the rest of you."

      I stepped the mast and set the sail with a flowing sheet, and then went to my post at the steering-oar. Joe had set the bearings of the ship as well as he could, a few minutes before the fog had hidden her from view. She was then, we judged, some six or seven miles dead under our ice, and her lower yards could be distinguished. even from our low position near the surface of the sea.

      The wind was light, but with the pull of the sail and five oars jogging, we made good headway; but it was getting late in the day, and we should soon have darkness as well as fog to contend with. And every one who has met with similar experiences knows how unsafe a guide is a light compass standing at one's feet in the sternsheets of a whaleboat. However, all I could expect to do was to get the general course correct. and make all the progress possible. From time to time I raised the fog-horn to my lips and blew a blast, even-though I knew we could not yet be near enough to the

Lost in the Fog. 541

ship for the sound to reach her; but in my uneasy state of mind I wanted to be doing something. We had noticed no ship in sight but our own, and did not think there was any other within many miles.

      On, on we sped before the wind, the shades of night closing down, giving us a foretaste of the darkness that was to come – a darkness that could almost be felt. A ship on the ocean is but a small object to steer for; a slight deviation from the true course, and a boat may pass on beyond her, and this at such a distance as to see and hear nothing in passing. I kept nervously looking at my compass, which seemed to fly round five or six points each way as it never did before,and with a sinking at the heart, wondering whether we were not going all wrong.

      I got out the "lantern-keg," which every whaleboat carries on active service, knocked it open and struck a light. I elevated the lantern upon a stout waifpole, stuck in the top of the loggerhead, and could just see my compass card by its dim light. Having done this I could do no more but steer on in the same general direction, straining my ears to catch some sound, as I knew the ship must soon begin to make signals.

      Blacker and blacker the darkness settled down upon the sea, until it seemed as if we were forcing our way through a wall. To be lost in a fog is one of the most fearful of the perils to which whalers are exposed. There is the chance of losing the ship entirely, and being left upon the broad ocean alone to experience the horrors of starvation and thirst. There is the chance of a heavy gale arising, in which the frail boat may founder, carrying down all on board. The nearest land to us was some two hundred miles distant – and this the rocky bleak inhospitable shores of the Fox Islands, difficult of access, and furnishing a more suitable home for seals and wild birds than for human beings.

      "I think we have pulled far enough, sir," said Joe the boatsteerer. "We don't want to get to leeward of the ship, anyhow.

      "No," said I, "that's true. I hardly think we are down abreast of her yet; but as you say, it's best to keep the weather-gage. Heave up now, and peak your oars. Keep your eyes open, all of you."

      I let the boat come up on a wind, and lay to, hoping to catch some sound for a guide.

      "The other boats may have struck a whale to leeward, and the ship run off towards them," said I. "But I should not have supposed the shipkeeper would do that, if he knew that we were – "

      A gun! The sound seemed to have a dull thud to it, as if smothered by an intervening wall. It was evidently three or four miles from us, but no two of us agreed as to its direction. We took the voice of the majority, and made sail on a wind, but feeling none too much confidence that we were right. The minority protested that we were all wrong.

      About a quarter of an hour may have passed when the second gun was audible, quite as distant apparently as the first, and the sound new seemed to come from astern of us. So round we went on the other tack. And thus we kept hearing signals at intervals, and changing our course; but we did not appear to gain any towards the sounds, and finally gave up the chase and lay to, in a state of complete bewilderment. Thick and impenetrable as ever the fog closed about us, while we had yet many hours of darkness ahead of us to be worried away. We divided ourselves into watches, and Joe the boatsteer[sic] and two others lay down under the thwarts of the boat to sleep – if they could. But the air was raw and chill, and we were not heavily clothed. I felt no desire to sleep, but sat up on the sternsheets, calculating chances, and wondering how long the fog was likely to last. This inaction was terrible; but to go ahead in our present state of uncertainty as to direction, was as likely to be fatal as otherwise, for we might be going further away from the ship all the time.

      We heard no more guns now, and knew that she had either ceased firing, or had passed entirely out of hearing. There was nothing to do but lie still until the fog should lift, and then, if no ship was in sight, we must shape our course for the Fox Islands. The small stock of hard tack in the tarpaulin bag must be carefully economized, as also the little fresh water in the boat-keg; so we took no nourishment then.

      Slowly, wearily the hours dragged away, until I judged it might be two o'clock in the morning. I roused Joe, and thought I would try and get a nap myself. All has been quiet during my patient vigil; the wind still continued light, and the slight rippling or lapping of the water under the boat's bottom, was the only sound that disturbed the silence of the night.

542 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

      "Hearing is the only sense that seems likely to be of any use to-night," said Joe, "but I believe I smell something, don't you?" I snuffed the air hard and thought I could, too.

      "Trying out?" said I, inquiringly.

      "That's it, exactly." Joe seemed delighted to find his own opinion confirmed; and the other men, when appealed to, thought they could perceive the odor. Yes, all could smell it, now. The fat crispy smell of boiling blubber is peculiar; it can hardly be mistaken, for it is like nothing else.

      "If there's a ship boiling in this neighborhood, it can't be the Rajah. We had no blubber aboard, and if the other boats had got a whale, of course she has not cut him in yet."

      "But they might be burning old scraps on the try-works, as a signal-light," said I. "It's true we could not see it far through this fog; but they would be likely to do it."

      "So they would," assented Joe. "The smell is growing a little stronger. The ship is, of course, to windward of us; but why don't they make some noise?"

      Joe seized the fog-horn, and distending his broad chest to its utmost capacity, sounded a blast such as might have brought down the walls of Jericho. We listened intently, then looked at each other.

      "Yes," said I, "I heard it."

      By the faint light of the boat-lantern, each could see the other's face light up with hope.

      "There it is again!"

      We knew very well what the sound was. A rapid succession of blows struck upon the head of an empty cask. A very common expedient to call boats to the ship in foggy weather, when within the distance of a mile or two, and one which answers the purpose admirably. This species of mammoth drum can be heard, not as far as a great gun, but much further than the ship's bell.

      There was no more napping under the thwarts, now; every one was up and on the qui vive. The sound was approaching us, growing louder at each successive repetition. We might as well for the present lie still where we were. The smell of burning scraps also grew stronger and pervaded the foggy air with a perfume, which though not exactly of Arabic Felix, was none the less grateful to our nostrils. By-and-by another fog-horn was heard to blow, away off abeam of us. This was evidently in another boat. We had supposed that the mate and second mate must have got on board before the fog shut down, but we had no means of knowing this, and they might still be adrift, like ourselves.

      We did not move from our position, but waited the progress of events. The drumming grew louder and louder as it approached, coming directly at us; and the odor, with the flavor of greasy smoke, became nearly overpowering. Fog horn blown at intervals – not far off now. I thought I could even hear the swash of the sea under a ship's bows, as she pushed her way before the light breeze.

      "Stand by your oars. He may run us down before we can get out of his way. Blow your horn, Joe, and keep it going."

      "Here she is! Looming high above us, and voices are heard of men on the bow, who have caught a glimpse of our light. And now we can make out the glare from the try-fires, but as the ship is off running free, there is no draft, and the fires very dull. If she is boiling, it is not the Rajah, but any port in a storm."

      Our warp is thrown, and dexterously caught, and we swing alongside the strange ship. All the talk we hear is in a foreign lingo – French.

      The Frenchmen were even more astonished at welcoming strangers, for they were looking for their own boat. She arrived soon after we did, for it was her horn that we had heard blown. The ship then luffed to, and stirred up her fires to continue boiling the whale which she had taken two days before. Our boat was veered astern, and we were made comfortable on board the good ship Telemaque of Havre.

      They had seen nothing of our ship the previous day, and could give no idea of her whereabouts. Captain Chandleur thought it probable the fog would last eight-and-forty hours, at least, and made us kindly welcome with true sailor's hospitality.

      Daylight brought no change in the density of the mist, which continued to veil us in every direction; but in the afternoon there was a breaking away in one particular quarter. A section of the horizon off the weather-beam was opened to view, and a man sent to the masthead reported seeing, right there in the clear spot, what appeared to be a dead whale flouting. It was not more

Lost in the Fog. 543

than two miles distant, and the spyglass soon placed the matter beyond all doubt.

      The French mate immediately ordered his boat cleared away, for here was a rich prize for the Telemaque. But I felt certain that the dead whale was mine, from which I had cut the day before, and I at once ordered my crew to haul up our boat which was veered astern. They entered fully into the spirit of the thing, and never was a boat manned more quickly. We got the start of the French boat, and with vigorous and lusty strokes, were soon shooting up to windward to get the first sight at the prize.

      It was indeed my whale, but unluckily circumstances were such that I could not easily prove it. She floated buoyantly with her breast and both fins plain in view; but my iron, by which alone I could establish ownership, was in the whale's back, deep down under water. Monsieur Bugeaud, with his boat, soon arrived, and could see no sense in my attempting to take charge of a whale which I had no means of securing. But I knew not at what moment the weather might clear, and the Rajah heave in sight, and I meant, at least, to make all possible objection and delay.

      The general rule is that marked craft claims the fish, so long as he is in the water, dead or alive. The ship's name, or a convenient abbreviation of it, is always marked with a small chisel on the flat of the shank of each harpoon, and this is sufficient to establish ownership, provided no other ship has succeeded in cutting him in. But after the blubber has been peeled no claim can be made. If the owner arrives on the stage during the process of cutting, and proves his right by marked craft, he may cut the blubber off square with the plankshear, and take all that is below it. Such is whaleman's law, as well understood by them all, and settled by long-established usage; and perhaps nothing more just than this could possibly be devised.

      This whale therefore belonged to the Telemaque, if she could cut her in. I certainly could do nothing, for I had, at present, no ship. I might insist on lying by the whale, and taking my chance, but I had really no right to do so unless I could first prove ownership. I succeeded, after much trouble, in hooking up the bight of the line, and underrunning it; but to roll such a ponderous mass over was simply impossible. The line itself was not sufficient to identify my property; we must get at the harpoon, or give up the prize as justly belonging to the Telemaque. If the Frenchman took the whale alongside, he would of course cut her in just as quickly as possible. When the first piece was raised, and the whale should be rolled back upward, I would find my iron, and might then protest, and ask, as a representative of the Rajah, for a stay of proceedings; but such demand would probably he laughed at under the circumstances. I could see nothing to be done but submit, and allow the whale to be taken in tow by Monsieur Bugeaud the French mate.

      But it was necessary for the ship to make a tack to fetch well up to windward, before taking the whale alongside. This occupied some time, and meanwhile the fog was breaking up. Our eyes were strained to catch the first glimpse of a sail, while the Frenchman was now praying that thick weather might continue at least until he could secure the blubber from my whale.

      "Sail O!" cried my midship-oarsman, as the clear space in the weather-board widened a little, and the mist, rolling back, disclosed the black hull, and then the tall spars of the Rajah, within a mile of us? No time was to be lost, and at the word my crew laid back upon their oars until they buckled with the strain.

      My story was quickly told, and the state of affairs fully explained. Our captain jumped into the boat with me, and we shot alongside the Telemaque just as her crew had streamed the line into the chocks, and with a lively song began hauling the whale down to the ship.

      Captain Chandleur received us courteously, though he well understood what the result of the post-mortem examination might be. He would roll the whale until the iron could be cut out, and if we proved property, of course there was no more to be said.

      "Now we must watch'em sharp," said my superior to me, "or they may contrive to accidentally cut the iron out and lose it."

      And indeed I detected the French boatsteerer, who went over to hook on, attempting a game of this kind; but we were too vigilant to be thus caught. I went over myself and bent a short warp to the iron as soon as it was possible to reach it; and when it was at the surface of the water I cut it out myself. It was hauled in on deck, and there, plainly legible on the shank, was the name "Rajah."

544 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

      There were some muttered sacre-e-s on the part of the French crew, but the captain was perfectly honorable, and, as a matter of honor and justice, could not undertake to act in defiance of a law so generally recognized. The boarding-knife was passed was passed through the blanket-piece on a line with the plankshear, Captain Chandleur taking as toll for his trouble the piece already raised above this division line, and we bore away the remainder in triumph to our own ship. A hundred and fifty barrels of oil rewarded honor us for the peril and anxiety which we had undergone since we left the ship twenty four hours previous; but I have no desire to repeat the experience of that night when lost in the fog.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Lost in the Fog: An Old Whaler's Reminiscence.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 42, No. 5 (Nov 1875)
Pages: 540-544