Bibliographic Information

The Plough Boy Journals

The Journals and Associated Documents

The Plough Boy Anthology

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. LII, No. 4 (Oct 1880)
pp. 362-365.

362 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.



We had been cruising for four weeks without having seen the spout of a spermaceti, and this, too, on the "Off-Shore Ground," where we had been very successful the previous season. Captain Worth and the mates were what may be called "whale crazy," talking little else in their hours of leisure, at the end of each day’s work, but our hard luck and the dull prospect of a good season’s catch.

      But it was idle to rail at fate, and to find fault with any human being for the long spell of hard times would have been the height of injustice. The Grand Turk was as well appointed and officered as any other ship in the fleet at that time; her mastheads always well manned, and either one of the mates or the captain himself was aloft, at all times. between sunrise and sundown, but if we did not see whales we could not make them. We had no fear but we could give as good an account of ourselves as any of our neighbors if we could have the opportunity.

      At length, one fine afternoon, when the mate went aloft after dinner, he electrified us all, as soon as he had taken his stand in the cross-trees, with the cry for which we had been so long and anxiously waiting.

      Captain Worth, as he roared out the usual question, "Whereaway?" jumped upon the rail and began to mount the rigging himself. The repetition of "There she blows!" at regular intervals, sent a thrill of joy and excitement to every heart, for such measured regularity indicated that we had before us the kind of whale which we had been seeking. No finback ever spouted regularly so many times.

      "What do you make of him, Mr. Ramsdall? "asked the captain as he swung his leg over the topsail yard, and prepared to adjust the focus of his short telescope.

      "Large sperm whale, sir, – slow as night. Blows! –- two points off the lee bow, three miles off, very slow and regular. Blows! "

      "I see him!" said the captain. "We are running about right to be near enough to him next rising."

      "There goes flukes!"

      The whale having had his full time on the surface, undisturbed, went down with that slow, majestic movement, which threw his tail up so as to display his immense fan to the best advantage.

      All doubt of the species was set at rest, and the orders were passed along to get the boats ready for action. This could be done leisurely while we were obliged to wait for the re-appearance of the whale. He was one of those patriarchal old bulls that are so often met with cruising alone, and the chance of striking was almost a sure one if we managed properly.

      The movements of the sperm whale, particularly of a large one, cruising alone, may be calculated with great accuracy, as to time, distance and direction. His time of staying down will be from forty minutes to an hour, or, in exceptional cases,a little more than an hour, and, if undisturbed, he seldom deviates from the course which he took when going down, and may be looked for in that direction with almost absolute certainty. Thus it was that, after standing on the same course about half an hour, the Grand Turk’s courses were hauled up, and her maintopsail thrown aback in a position where the whale might be expected to break water, within a mile under her lee. Our three boats were then quietly lowered, and setting the sails, run to leeward without putting an oar or a paddle into the water. The only words spoken by the captain to his officers, on lowering away, were, –

      "Now, Mr. Ramsdall and Mr. Fisher, we must all work carefully, and no striving for victory over each other. There’s no doubt at all that we shall strike the whale if we manage quietly. He’s a noble whale, and we must have him. Remember we haven’t greased a lance for four weeks, and today we ought to make up some of the lost time."

      I was at this time boatsteerer in the larboard or chief mate’s boat, and as we glided silently off before the moderate trade wind, I stood erect upon the clumsy cleet in the bow of the boat, holding by the bight of the wraps, keeping a sharp lookout ahead.

      The captain's boat was about a quarter of a mile abeam of us, and the second mate’s on the other at a similar distance, we having thus separated to spread the chances. We had been running perhaps fifteen minutes, when Mr. Ramsdall began to get impatient.

      "Look out sharp, now, it’s time for him to be up, and it won’t do to run beyond him while he’s down. We must luff to soon, or we shall go too far. There! the old man has let fly his sheets and is rounding to, and we must "–

      "Keep all fast!" said I, in a low but

An Ugly Customer. 363

sharp tone, as I jumped down to my place in the head-sheets, and seized my first iron. While the mate was speaking, I had perceived a commotion or swelling of the water, and could also see a change in its color, as though the whale was coming up leisurely. I had no time to spare.

      "Lay her head a little more up this way!" said I, with a wave of my hand; and even as I spoke the head of the monster spermaceti rose to the surface, and a powerful blast was blown from his spiracle, so suddenly and so near that it was no wonder the boat’s crew were startled for the moment.

      "Down to your oars!" yelled the mate. The whale straightened himself out upon the surface, quite unconscious of what awaited him, and received my first iron, driven to the socket, into his broadside, the second a little further aft, nearly under the hump, and all was white water and confusion for a moment. The line was spinning round the logger-head, and out through the chocks of the boat, while the cry of "Stern all!" in our boat was offset by those of "Pull ahead hard!" in the other two. All necessity for quiet or caution is over the instant one of the boats is fast. The sails were at once rolled up and stowed away, and, while our ocean steed started off with us in tow, the captain and Mr. Fisher took to their oars, regardless how much noice[sic] was made now, so that they could overtake and re-enforce us.

      Our whale, however, did not run out much line, but soon slacked up his pace, and, from his vicious manoeuvres, seemed disposed rather to give battle than to run away. His challenge, whether or not he meant it as such, was promptly accepted.

      The waist-boat, with vigorous strokes of her oars, pulled up past his quarter; but the second mate, always rather inclined to be rash and over-confident, let his sag on too soon, instead of pulling well forward, before he threw her head toward the whale.

      "Stand up, Coleman!" his first iron flashed in the sunbeams and pierced Leviathan to the quick: a crashing sound is heard, telling us that the waist boat is stoven!

      "Oh, dear!" cried Captain Worth. "Mr. Fisher, why will you be so careless? Are you stove badly?"

      It appears that her wound is, like Mercutio’s, not as wide as a church door, but it is quite enough. She cannot be kept free by bailing.

      "Can you keep her afloat to get aboard the ship?" demanded the captain.

      "Yes, sir, I think we can."

      "Well, get aboard as fast as possible, and launch one of the spare boats from overhead. You may have to come and pick up somebody else. Pull ahead, us!"

      "Are you well fast, Mr. Ramsdall?" the captain asked.

      "Ay, ay, sir. Both irons in solid."

      "I think I ’ll play loose boat a while. I don’t like his actions."

      The old man shifted ends with his boatsteerer, and got his lance in position. But as often as he approached within dart, the whale milled quickly round, head on, showing a disposition to meet him half way. The lance was darted two or three times, but failed of its effect, not reaching a vital spot.

      "Haul line, boys!" sang out Mr. Ramsdall. "Haul me on to him, and let’s see if I can’t get the right lance at him."

      But we were even less fortunate than the starboard boat had been, for before we were in position for a dart, the monster came at us open-mouthed, and, whirling suddenly over, knocked the bow and tub oars into pieces for kindling wood, and split the gunwale streak, also breaking the gunwale itself.

      We might be said to have escaped by the skin of our teeth, but as all our damages were above water, we were still able to keep afloat.

      "Don’t try that again, Mr. Ramsdall," said the captain. "Let me work with the loose boat.

      "There’s a ship to windward running down here, under all sail, sir," reported the captain‘s boat-steerer.

      "So there is. Well, let her come, but there’s no more whales here for her, and we’ve got enough to do to muckle this one. Has Mr. Fisher got aboard yet? "

      We had not hitherto had time to look after the waist-boat at all. But as our ship was within a mile or less, we were now able to make out that the boat had sunk, before she could get alongside, but fortunately she was so near that they had swum the end of a line to the ship, and now appeared to be hauling the wreck alongside.

      "There’s a bad kettle of fish! "grumbled the old man. "Mr. Fisher won’t get here before sundown to help us. But the whale is pretty quiet now. We ’ll try him again."

      But our new trial was no more successful than the previous ones, for the whale, instead of awaiting the attack, let go by the run, and went down like a ballast stone to reappear in a new direction, with junk erect in the air and lower jaw swung open. Discretion was evidently the better part of valor, for the present; but he soon straightened and lay comparatively quiet again. Captain Worth was encouraged to make another attempt, but this only had the effect of inaugurating a new line of tactics on the part of the whale. Without waiting for the lance, he gave a thundering flap of his flukes upon the water, as if to say farewell,

364 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

and started off to windward at a round pace, spouting strong and clear.

      Away we went in tow, holding a good tension on our line; but the starboard-boat, not being fast, was in danger of being left out of the game altogether. The captain fell in for a stern chase, but soon by hard pulling on his part and slacking line on ours, the captain got near enough to throw his warp with a bowline in the end, and fell in behind us, towing by our loggerhead.

      On we sped now, directly in the wind’s eye, passing at racing speed across the bows of the Grand Turk, but not near enough to hail her.

      We could see that Mr. Fisher and his small force of men were doing their best to secure the wreck of his sunken boat, but had very little time to make observation before we were away to windward of our ship, and rapidly nearing the stranger, who was coming down swiftly before the breeze. His mast-heads were all double-manned, and more men could be seen at various points aloft and in the rigging, all eager to get a near view of the sport, but having then no idea of taking any part in it, so far as our whale was concerned.

      "That’s the Phebe Ann of Nantucket," said Mr. Ramsdall, "and they know us well enough. I know the painting of her waist-boat, and that big patch in her foretopsail I could swear to anywhere."

      The whale ran us so directly in her track that she sheered from her course to avoid running us down, and as soon as we had passed, she luffed to with her maintopsail aback, to watch our proceedings as mere spectators. Our steed slackened his pace, and then wheeling round, ran to leeward across the stern of the Nantucket ship, within hailing distance.

      Captain Lawrence stood on the hurricane-house, with his officers near him, enjoying the fun.

      "Got a tough one there, haven’t you, Worth?" he shouted. "Got one boat stove, eh?"

      "Yes, but he must bring to soon," answered the old man. "I guess we ’ll tire him out shortly, if the irons hold."

      "Want any help?"

      "No, – not yet; though perhaps I shall before I get through."

      By this time we were out of hearing, but our whale soon stopped short, and lay wallowing as if he meant at last to show good play. We threw off the starboard-boat’s warp, and she pulled ahead, the captain standing ready with his lance to improve any opportunity that might offer.

      He advanced within easy darting distance, and was already in the act of drawing back the pole over his shoulder, when the whale suddenly rolled over.

      "Stern all! Stern hard! He's gone down like a stone! Stern hard out of the way! Look out sharp, Mr. Ramsdall: there's no knowing where he'll come up next. I never saw his match for cunning, in all my twenty years of whaling."

      "My line's all slack," said the mate. "He isn’t far down, – but we might as well lie still where we are as to stern or pull ahead."

      At this instant there was a commotion of the water, a slight lifting of the boat, and up rose on one side of the boat that monstrous junk, seamed and ragged with scars, while the lower jaw, and with his fearful array of ivory, stood out, like the leaning tower of Pisa.

      Nobody stopped long to make observations, the stroke oarsman threw himself over one gunwale, the tub oarsman over the other, and I myself executed a kind of back somersault over the stern-sheets into the bloody water, just as the monster "shut fan" upon the frail boat, bringing his junk and jaw together with a power that crushed her up as if she had been an eggshell.

      Here we were all adrift, and enough for the starboard boat to do to take us all in, as we struck out for her as our last ark of safety.

      The wreck of our boat was still fast to the whale, for no one had stayed even to cut the line. Drenched and dripping, we all crowded into the captain’s boat, while the whale, as if disdaining to flee, lay close at hand, blowing off his deep respirations, for the time completely master of the field.

      The big waif was flung out to the breeze, as an urgent signal for help, and we looked anxiously toward the ship, where the second mate and his gang were getting spare boats down from the bearers, but it would be some time before they could come to our aid.

      "Oh, dear! What luck!" said Captain Worth. "Mr. Fisher can’t get to us for an hour yet, and it would be madness to go on to that whale again, with all this crowd in the boat. I shall have to signal to Lawrence for help."

      But help was close at hand. The whole scene had been watched from our consort's mast-heads and rigging with intense anxiety, and the Phebe Ann's boats were already dropping from her cranes into the water, to come to the rescue. We all rose to our feet, standing in solid phalanx, and swinging our hats aloft, – such of us as had not lost them, – gave three hearty cheers at the sight. For, if our fighting whale did not run away, he might yet be conquered, after this powerful re-enforcement should join us. Down they came swiftly, the tough oars bending under the muscle of fresh men, all

To a Fly. 365

eager for the fray, and the voice of Captain Worth was to be heard calling to them, even before they were near enough to understand his words.

      "Come on, Lawrence! Come on! Let your boats pitch in and help me to muckle out this whale, and we’ll go halves!"

      "Ay, ay! all right!" answered his brother skipper. "Here! let some of your men jump into my boat, and lighten your load. Go ahead, Mr. Swain, and you too, Mr. Ray; the whale has brought round to, but don’t be headlong. Work carefully. Mr. Fisher will be here soon, with another boat; he is getting her over the side now. Hollo! Where’s the whale?"

      "Somewhere under us," said Mr. Ramsdall, as coolly as if he had said he was a couple of miles off. "He may be at his old tricks again."

      Again the monster rose, with his head out, gnashing that ponderous lower jaw, and straightening himself once more, passed across the head of Ray’s boat. Young and impetuous, like our own second mate, Ray threw his boat on carelessly, and though his boat-steerer got both irons in, his oars on the starboard side were all swept away, and two of his boat's crew were severely hurt; the whale having flung himself over directly toward the boat when he felt the sting of the irons. But he drew ahead clear of her, leaving her half full of water, and the after-oarsman bailing for dear life.

      "Don’t cut your line, Mr. Ray," called a loud, clear voice, in a deliberate tone, – a voice which I now heard for the first time. "Hold on to the whale, but drop astern out of the way, and let me try him. Pull ahead us! Lay more off, Tom, and pull away forward on him. So, steady."

      "That’s the talk!" cried Captain Lawrence, in high glee. "Now, if Job Swain can’t doctor that whale, there isn’t a man in all the fleet on this ground that can."

      The mate of the Phebe Ann was one of those long-limbed, powerful men, who seem to have been created and reared expressly for such emergencies, to straighten ten fathoms of lance-warp, and do execution. He was wary and deliberate, too, giving his orders with perfect coolness, and conning his boat into exactly the position where he wanted her, without the least hurry or excitement. When all was ready, he poised his long lance, and with a peculiar, swinging movement of his tall form, sent it speeding on its fatal mission. Even at that long distance it was driven home to the socket in the whale’s broadside; a tremor or thrill was perceptible throughout the mighty, living mass, and the next moment cheers for the "red flag" rent the air from thirty pairs of strong lungs. For the whale which had hitherto roared defiance at us, in such strong, clear tones, was now completely choked with the life-blood which gushed from it in torrents.

      "Ah, the fight is all out of him," said Captain Worth. "The sun is two hours high yet, and a child can take care of him now."

      We divided a hundred barrels of sperm-oil between the two ships, and bought a boat from the Phebe Ann to replace ours which had been crushed in the whale’s jaws.

      As the two captains shook hands at parting, I saw Captain Worth glance admiringly at the physique of Job Swain, and overheard him say to Lawrence, –

      "He’s a treasure, that mate of yours. He might have sat for the original of Cooper’s "Long Tom Coffin."


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: An Ugly Customer.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 52, No. 4 (Oct 1880)
Pages: 362-365