Bibliographic Information

The Plough Boy Journals

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19th Century American Whaling

Bonin Islands

Pitcairn's Island

Dictionaries & Glossaries

Ashley's Glossary of
Whaling Terms

Dana's Dictionary of
Sea Terms


W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. XLIV, No. 3 (Sep 1876)
pp. 268-270.

268 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.



      Few people – not even mariners in other branches of sea service – have any idea of the perils incurred by the whaleman in the line of his profession. He alone can be said to "go down to the sea in ships," while other seamen only skim across it; of him alone can it be declared that, in a literal sense, he "does business on the great waters."

      We had been thirty days to the southward of that stormy headland, Cape Horn, vainly endeavoring to make our way into the Pacific, against a succession of westerly gales, which had kept us most of the time under storm canvas. We had stretched away up into the latitude of fifty-nine, and our good ship had struggled, and wallowed, and tumbled about, hardly holding her own, until at last a slant of wind enabled us to lay a course that would carry us, if we were able to continue it, well clear of the land and down into milder latitudes. For the first time in many days, we had set whole topsails, caught a glimpse of sunshine, and manned the mastheads. The men had not been aloft an hour, when we were electrified with the thrilling cry of, "There she breaches!" A few minutes sufficed to determine the fact that the breach was made by a spermaceti of the largest class. It is not uncommon to meet with sperm whales in high southern latitudes, for this species is found anywhere in deep water, without regard to climate or temperature.

      Rugged as was the sea at the time, and uncertain as was the continuance of fair weather, the main object of the voyage must be pursued at any risk. If a whale was in sight, we must lower and try him, as long as a boat could brave the sea. So down went our three boats, as soon as the maintopsail was thrown aback to deaden her way. The whale, which was one of those patriarchal old "sogs," generally found cruising alone, was going slowly to leeward, leisurely blowing the low bushy cloud of white mist from his spiracle at intervals of a few seconds, and seeming entirely unconscious of any danger until the waistboat, in which I pulled the tub-oar, was shooting down upon the declivity of a wave, right abreast of his hump, within short darting distance. Westcott, the boatsteerer, jumped to his feet; the second mate gave a heave of the steering-oar at the same moment, and the boat struck her stern smartly against the broadside of the whale, with a shock that nearly threw the boatsteerer from his unsteady footing. But nothing daunted he buried his first iron to the socket in the body of the monster, and recovering himself, also gave him the second one though not so deeply. By this time we were half drowned with the chilly brine, the whale heaving his "small" and his immense flukes in the air close to our heads as he pitched to go down, and sweeping two oars out of the rowlocks as he did so. The bowman had the breath temporarily knocked out of him by the loom of his oar striking him in the chest; but the whale was gone, and our line running swiftly through the checks in less time than it would take to tell the story. Nobody was seriously injured, and Mr. Dennis full of enthusiasm and anxiety to secure the first whale of the voyage for his boat, shifted ends and got his lance clear. The other two boats were now doing their best to reinforce us, but must await the next rising of the whale before they could fasten.

      It was so rugged that every send of the boat into the sea threw a torrent of water in over the gunwales, compelling Westcott to slack line to ease the strain, and the after-oarsman to ply his bucket almost continually in baling. Three of us in the boat were green hands, and our first initiation into the art and mystery of whaling was attended with more peril than we were really aware of at the moment.

      The whale took out about two-thirds of the line from our tub, when the strain was suddenly relaxed, and we were ordered to haul in again. The line, besides being cold and wet, was new and wiry, and the operation of carefully coiling it down in the stern-sheets was one of some difficulty. Our consorts had now pulled ahead to the spot where they expected the whale to rise, but suddenly some one cried, "There he is!" and sure enough, the monster broke water

Whaling off Cape Horn. 269

nearly half mile off, pushing half his body into the air in his agony.

      "We are loose, then!" said Mr. Dennis, in a tone of vexation. "Bear a hand, boys, and gather in this stray line."

      The other boats would now have the start of us, as they went on in pursuit, while we were delayed in taking care of our line. The loss of the whale was soon explained, when on hauling in, we found the first iron broken off at the socket. When the strain shifted to the second one, it had drawn out, not having been so deeply entered as the other.

      "Pull ahead!" cried Mr. Dennis, as soon as he had the broken iron in hand. "We’re two oars short – never mind, shift the after oar to the bow thwart, and man three oars – the others take your paddles. Bend on another iron, Westcott, as fast as you can."

      "There’s a signal at the ship‘s mizzenpeak," said I. "What does that mean?"

      Mr. Dennis glanced to windward. "It means – Give up the chase and get on board – and it’s high time, too. Look there!"

      The appearance of the sky in the direction of his hand, was enough to explain his meaning, in language that all of us understood. A double-headed Cape Horn squall was coming down upon us; such a one as makes everything crack again, while the accompanying hail cuts the flesh like little stones.

      The ship had already hoisted the signal of recall, and put her helm up to come to her boats. The third mate had seen the signal even before we did, as our attention had been more diverted, and in the excitement of the time being, we had not looked to windward. As the ship fell off before it, she forged quickly, nearing us at a great rate of speed, though the topsails were settled down on the lifts and the reef-tackle hauled out, an operation termed by seamen, "Spanish-reefing." We had nothing to do but lie snug and wait for the ship to come to us. To attempt pulling to windward in such a sea would be sheer folly.

      But rapidly as the good ship came down to our rescue, the squall was too quick even for her. When it burst upon us, it wrapped everything from view, and for a time, we knew not where the ship was nor where we were ourselves. To keep the boat headed up to the sea and prevent her swamping, required all the thought and skill of the officer at the steering-oar; while crouching down under the fierce blast, with the hail seeming to cut to the bone, we labored with the buckets, in this dreadful noonday darkness, to keep her free of water. For ten or fifteen minutes it was utterly impossible to look to any point of the compass; then the blast, with its hail, had passed over, leaving a strong gale of wind, such as may be called the normal weather of this wild region. As the sky cleared, we saw the ship in fearful proximity to us, and driving steadily on as if she meant to "give us the stem" with no more compunction than she would have shown in attacking a Malay pirate. We were barely in time to escape destruction by a few lusty strokes of the oars, and a sudden change of the ship’s course, as she discovered us and luffed to. By this manoeuvre we were brought directly under her lee, and had our warp thrown on board before she had deadened her headway. She came flying up into the wind with topsails on the cap, and jib slatting fearfully at the boom-end, for with the few shipkeepers, they had been too short-handed to secure any of the canvas. It required some dexterity and skillful management to get a boat hooked on and run up to the davits in so rugged a sea; but this was accomplished without serious accident, and we went directly from this work to our stations aloft furling the fore and mizzen-topsails. While on the yards we could see the other two boats, which were a mile and a half to leeward, riding by a sort of floating anchor, made of their oars lashed together, by which means they were kept head to the wind and sea. Having got things a little more manageable aloft, we swung her off again, sending some hands to stow the jib while it was becalmed before the wind.

      The operation of picking up our boats was a delicate one and attended with no little danger. Nice judgment is required in a gale of wind with a large sea on, to luff to at exactly the right moment, and equally nice work on the part of those in the boat to bring her handsomely alongside. We were quite successful with the larboard boat, manning the falls and running her into the air so quickly when the word was given, that she had no chance to lift on the next roll of the ship. But to attempt to hoist the starboard boat on the weather side would be madness, and the captain decided to wear round before taking her up.

270 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

      A wave of the hand was understood by the third mate as a signal for him to run to leeward, while this manoeuvre was being executed. He had no need of either sail or oars to propel his light boat; he had enough to do at the steering-oar to keep her straight before the wind and sea, and let her drive swiftly on, keeping two men ready with balers to save her from foundering. The operation of wearing ship was quickly performed, and the old Iris was brought to on the port tack as skillfully as before, the boat rounding in snugly under our lee. But we were not so fortunate in hoisting her up. At the word "Fore and aft!" a run was made with one tackle-fall, but the other caught foul so that the two ends of the boat rose unequally, and a heavy lurch of the ship brought the forward end down heavily, unhooking the tackle. As she rose again, the boat was lifted by our end, and the iron hoisting-strap, not so strong as it should have been, broke off at the neck. "Save the men!" was the cry, "Never mind the boat!" Our whole interest centred in the safety of the two men who were hooking on. The third mate, however, had already got a hold on the mizzen-chains and was safe, while the Portuguese boatsteerer, Antone, had clung to the running parts of the fall when his tackle unhooked, and was now shinning for dear life. A dozen strong arms were ready over the rail to assist him, and a "hurrah!" went up when he was dragged in on the quarter-deck, exhausted with his fright and his struggles, but unhurt.

      Away went our starboard boat – a new one, which had been that day in active service for the first time – dancing buoyantly off on the crest of the waves for a minute or two, when a comber filled her to the thwarts, and her heavier movements were soon hidden from our view. It was no time to fret over the loss of one boat. All our lives were safe for the time being, and we had enough to do to bring the ship down to short storm canvas, and make all snug for a strong steady gale. It is at such moments, after narrow escapes, that the seamen has abundant reason to feel his own nothingness, and to realize his absolute dependence upon the mercy of Heaven.

      But as if to tantalize us still more, while we were aloft close-resting the main-topsail, our immense sperm whale which had escaped by the breaking of the harpoon in his body, rose within a quarter of a mile in full view, and started to windward, lashing the sea in his agony into a very chaos of foam, tinged with his life-blood. We watched him for some time after we had shortened sail, for his progress was slow, and the sight seemed to make our captain and the other old whalers almost insane with excitement. But to have lowered again in pursuit of him would have been madness; the risk was too great to be thought of.

      "Sour grapes!" muttered the mate, gloomily, as he turned away to his duty. "Here we have lost a bran-fire new boat, and an iron, and just saved our lives by the skin of our teeth, and are none the richer in pocket for it. We have killed a big whale – for he is sure to die of the wound – and he will do nobody any good. And now we may as well make out our log for another week’s beating and banging, trying to get round the corner.

      Go below, the watch!"


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Whaling off Cape Horn.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 44, No. 3 (Sep 1876)
Pages: 268-270