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19th Century American Whaling

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No. 2.

W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. LXIII, No. 2 (Feb 1886)
pp. 154-159.


. . . .



No. 2.

A Night Train Runs off the Track. – "No Blame Attaached to Any One."

Onward we sped to the northward and westward, keeping a sharp lookout, of course, for sperm whales during the hours of daylight, but crowding the canvas on her night and day. for we had no time to lose. We were anxious to be among the first ships of the fleet to encounter the icy barrier, unless we should be so fortunate as to find the whales before attaining so high a latitude. The "Gorgon," like a flour-barrel tub, made considerable progress before the wind, and we crossed the equator twenty days after leaving our port , our longitude being about one hundred and twenty degrees west, having passed well to windward of the Society and Marquesas groups. The day that we crossed the line we struck a porpoise from the mar-


tingale in the morning, watched the panicstricken escort of albicorc and bonita who had kept with us for several days, as they scattered in dismay before the onset of the Pacific swordtish, the " Chevalier" of Herman Melville; and soon after we passed through a large school of blackfish, popping up their shining " junks," and puffing from their valve-like spiracles, then rounding out their glossy backs to show their hook-shaped humps, gamboling defiantly about us as if conscious that we had no time to spare to luff-to for such comparatively small game..

      "Lively ground!" exclaimed Captain Stetson cheerfully. "Lively ground,, Mr. Norton!" Then raising his voice still louder, "Sharp lookout there, aloft I".

      "Ay, a}r, sir!" came down from the powerful lungs of Mr. Pomroy, in the main topgallant cross-trees..

      "We'd like to haVe another squarehead or two before we go north," continued the old man, " though we don't want to lose time cruising for them. Sperm oil is worth a dollar and a quarter a gallon, Mr. Norton.".

      "It ought to be worth a dollar a drop, at the rate we get it," answered the third mate, a Martha's Vineyarder, who had been several right whaling seasons in New Bedford ships. "But the ground does look lively. I shouldn't wonder if we saw a sperm whale before night. There's something floating on the water yonder; sec it, sir?".

      "Yes. What is that off the starboard bow?" shouted the old man, turning his face skyward..

      "Piece of squid," roared Mr. Pomroy still louder. "Seen half a dozen pieces.".

      "Good sign," mused the captain. "Good sign.".

      "Perhaps it's a sign there are no whales here to eat it," remarked Mr. Norton, with a laugh..

      "Well, it is," the captain answered; "but I take it it's also a sign that one has been here lately, and wasted a part of his dinner. The old saying is, all signs of rain fail in dry weather; but I hope some of the signs today will amount to something.".

      It was not, however, until four o'clock in the afternoon, that Mr. Paddack, who was just about coming down from aloft, raised the cheering cry of:—.

      "There she blows!" adding in response to the stereotyped questions as to bearing and distance, "Right ahead! Two miles off!".

      The rigging, in a minute afterward, shook under the tread of reinforcements hastening to the masthead, and conspicuous among them was the old man with his trusty spyglass, muttering, as he stepped on the rail:—.

      "I'm afraid it's too late in the day; we have only got two hoiys more sun. What do you make of him, Mr. Paddack?" he asked, when half way up the rigging, as the cry of, "There she blows! " was still repeated at measured intervals..

      "Large lone whale, sir, headed on a wind. Moves very slowly, sir.".

      "Oh, dear! " said the captain impatiently. "Our chance is not worth much at this time of day. If we could only have seen him earlier!".

      "I think we'll be down abreast of him next rising, sir," said Mr. Paddack encouragingly..

      "Let me get the glass to bear on him. Yes, he's very slow; hardly moves at all," said Captain Stetson. "But all will depend on the next rising, for it will be after five when he comes up again. He won't stay down less than an hour, and probably more than that. The sun dips at six, and if we are going to do anything with him, we shall have to make quick work. You may get the lines in, Mr. Pomroy, and have the boats all ready to drop. There—goes—flukes! What time is it?".

      "Twenty minutes after four," was answered from the deck..

      It is well known to whalemen, but perhaps not to the general reader, that the movements of the sperm whale, when undisturbed, may be depended upon, and calculated with great exactness, as to time, distance and direction. This is especially true of a large whale cruising alone. After noting his time once or twice, his reappearance may be looked for almost to a minute, and in the same direction in which his head was pointed when he threw his flukes out, for he scarcely ever deviates from his course when under water. Of course these observations do not apply to a whale after he has perceived danger, and is disturbed or gallied, as the professional word is, his mevements soon becoming more or less erratic after this. Nor are they applicable, to any extent, to other species of cetaceous animals, the chase of the right whale and polar whale being an uncertain, dodging operation, while that of the humpback and finback is still more so..

      We had luffed to with maintopsail to the mast, and the courses up, when we judged.


it was nearly time for the whale to rise again, the boats being " hoisted and swung," and the respective crews at or near their stations for lowering. The whale's time was an hour and ten minutes, making it half-past five when he again broke water, not more than half a mile distant, still headed on a wind, on the same tack with the ship.

      "Mr. Pomroy," said the captain, the orders being, of course, understood by all the officers, though addressed to the chief mate, as commander of the light flotilla, " if you don't strike this rising, you may as well come directly on board, for it will be dark before he nses again. If you strike, you must work quick upon him, and ride him down before dark if you can. If he sounds, I must trust to your judgment when to cut from him. Do so when you think best, and don't run any unreasonable risk.''.

      It struck me that the captain's orders were so discretionary that they were no orders at all, but rather suggestions, showing great confidence in his first officer. We lowered and set our sails on a wind, using the paddles as being less likely to disturb the whale than the oars, which are seldom made use of in chasing whales, except after they are gallied or in case they turn to windward. My station was at the tub-oar of the mate's boat; but Mr. Paddack, being the swiftest under sail, soon outstripped the rest of us, and it was plain that he had the chance in his own hands for this rising, and that it was a close thing to wager upon whether even he would get alongside of him before his spoutings were out. Of course we followed as fast as possible, in order to support him in ease he should strike, and watched his progress with breathless interest, as he gradually gained upon the prey. Nearer and nearer he approached at each vigorous stroke of his paddles, till the mate said eagerly:—.

      "If he spouts twice more, the waist boat wili be fast. Blo-ows! Now if he comes again. Yes, it's a sure thing. Poll up our sail, Frank, and down with it as fast as you can!".

      The sails of all the three supporting boats fluttered in the wind for a moment, the masts were unstepped and down, and the oars manned. Further caution and quiet were unnecessary, for Mr. Paddack was fast and no whale was to be seen; but the humming sound of his line, as it spun round the loggerhead, told that the monster was sounding heavily. We were soon hovered round him, ready to assist him with more line if needed, and the end of the third mate's line was passed into his boat and bent on. Still down, down, till we saw the second mate draw his chock-pin and throw the bight of the line clear of his bow, shouting:—.

      "Look out for him, Mr. Norton! He's yours now!".

      "All right! " responded the third mate..

      And the spinning and humming sound was transferred now to the bow boat's loggerhead, the line still running out as fast as ever. Anxious looks were directed where the upper limb of the sun was disappearing below the horizon, for it wanted but a few minutes of sundown when the attack was made. We knew that this heavy sound and the gathering of stray lines would occupy much time, and the twilight would be wellnigh gone before we should make any impression upon him with the lances. The third line was bent, and the strain taken by the starboard boat, and half her tub was emptied before the whale was drowned out and the tension relaxed. Now followed the tedious process of gathering in some five hundred fathoms of line, which must also be done carefully, and every foot of it coiled clear for running out again. In the meantime, we pulled ahead and threw our irons into the whale. We also lanced him once or twice, but it was seven o'clock before the lines were fairly cleared and distributed in their respective boats, and the twilight was fading into darkness. It was injudicious to hang on to a whale after dark, but the officers were all whale-mad, and neither would be the first to suggest cutting from him. He had as yet received no fatal wound, but was spouting strong and clear up to the time he 'threw his flukes out for another submarine voyage..

      The mate now sent Mr. Norton to the ship, which had kept close up to us without difficulty, while we and the second mate held fast to our prey, with Mr. Bishop's boat towing astern of us, so as to have the benefit of his line if it should be needed. A sheer with the helm, and the ship ranged up within fifty yards of the boats. The captain hailed..

      "Mr. Pomroy," said he, " you may hang on as long as the whale works in this direction. Set a light, one of you, and I will keep the big signal lantern aloft, and run the ship as near to you as possible. If the


whale works to windward, or runs so that I cannot keep near you, or if anything else happens that will make more risk, cut off and come aboard at once. If he jogs to leeward this way, we may be able to hang to him all night, but don't haul on him, or attempt to kill him in the dark.".

      "Ay, ay, sir," answered the'first officer. "We'll be careful of him. Mr. Bishop, get your lantern out and set a light. We must have an eye to our lines now and then, Mr. Paddack, and clear the turns. If he cuts and sheers about, we shall have forty round turns in the hause, more or less. All the Bleep you get tonight, boys, you must get in cat-naps where you sit at the oars.".

      The bow boat was sent from the ship to bring us a liberal supply of provisions, and we made our suppers as we sat in our stations. Our steed carried us along at times rather too swiftly for comfort, but ever and anon slacked his speed, and several times "brought round to," and lay wallowing in the sea, so that the ship was able to gain on us again. The weather was fine, the light trades blew steadily, and though there was no moon, the stars shone brilliantly down upon us, and signal lanterns at the ship's gaff and flying-jib-boom end kept us always informed of her whereabouts. Several times the whale sounded, but as we now had two lines fast to him, we checked him hard, and drowned him out without being obliged to use the starboard boat's line.".

      Hour after hour of the night wore away, and at two o'clock the ship was so near us that we cheered each other when four bells were struck. But soon after this hour, our whale changed his course, turning to windward and running quite smartly. This made it uncomfortable work for us, as the boat jumped up and down in meeting the head swell, but this was the least ill effect of the new movement. The danger consisted in his carrying us where the ship could not follow, and if he continued his rate of speed long, we should lose the ship's lights. She had hauled sharp to the wind immediately on observing our change of course, as we knew by the positions of her two lights, and was doubtless doing her best under all sail. But the beacon lights were growing fainter and fainter, and it was even doubtful whether she could see that of our small lanterns at all. Something must be done very soon..

      "What do you say, Mr. Paddack?" demanded the first officer. "Shall we cut and let him go?".

      "That's for you to say," replied his subordinate..

      "I know it," returned Mr. Pomroy. "I am responsible, but I'm hardly ready to give him up yet.".

      "Nor I either," said the second mate. "I should say hold on as long as we can see the lights glimmer, at any rate. He may mill to leeward again soon; at all events we shall have daylight in two or three hours.".

      "Yes; but if he carts us on this course till daylight, we shall have no in ship sight. We must cut before we lose the lights, or else we must haul on and get a lance at him, and that's against direct orders from the old man.".

      A pause ensued, for neither of the officers wished to shoulder the responsibility of cutting from the whale, or of being the first to recommend doing so. This was a wrong state of things, of course, for the mate should have acted without hesitation, as his own judgment dictated. But it was a very natural feeling in all the officers, and one which always operates powerfully in similar cases..

      "Let me pull ahead with my loose boat and get a lance at him," suggested the fourth mate, who was still towing astern of us..

      "No," returned Mr. Pomroy. "I shall not send any one to do it, nor allow any one to go but myself. Now's a good time, he's slacked his pace a little. Haul up here and jump into my boat, Mr. Bishop, and I will take yours.".

      The change was quickly made, " the Bishop," as we called him among ourselves, taking charge of our boat, while the mate cleared away a lance in the other one, at the same time giving the word to "pull ahead!" He passed us and disappeared in the obscurity ahead, though the measured stroke of the oars was still distinguishable, broken now and then by orders, short and sharp, in the clear voice of Mr. I'omroy..

      "Lay on! Hold water!".

      Then a thundering flat blow on the water from the monster's flukes, and our way was stopped, while the line hung slack in the chocks..

      "Stern all, and look out sharp! " said the Bishop..

      And presently there was a commotion in the water close under the boat, a blast from the spout-hole as it rose above the surface


but fainter in sound than heretofore, and with a snapping and gurgling accompaniment that told of the escape of his life-blood, and the next moment our boat careened, gunwale under, filled, and we were all floundering in the sea! There was a scene of confusion, and a struggle for life in the dark, each one grasping at the nearest floating object, amid cries of "Keep clear of the line! Cut it somebody!".

      I felt a grasp on my shoulder, and the next moment was dragged into the starboard boat. Luckily the whale had "brought round to" at a short distance from us, the men's heads were counted and found all safe, our line was cut off, leaving the whale in the second mate's charge, and a few minutes sufficed to straighten matters out. The boat was righted full of water, and the oars lashed athwart the gunwales. She was found not to be injured at all, for our steed had merely lifted us on his back as he rounded, and gently rolled us over. Some few little matters were lost, but we had abundant cause to congratulate ourselves that our mishap was no worse..

      No ship's light was to be seen, but we knew that she could not be far from us at daylight, for the whale was mortally wounded, and was now making his dying circles. Mr. Paddack hailed us that he was all right, and would'probably turn up in a few minutes..

      "Set your light as soon as you can." said the mate, " and we can keep the run of each other. I want to save my boat if I can. She isn't even cracked, only capsized and filled. Look sharp for the ship now, boys. She must have tacked by this time.".

      The breeze had freshened a little, and the stars in the eastern sky were obscured by moving clouds, which seemed to promise still more increase of wind. The ship would approach us quickly after going about, and sharp eyes were now levelled at the quarter in which she was expected to appear..

      "Light ho!" was cried by three or four voices at once. "Close to us!".

      "He's not so close as you think," said Mr. Pomroy. "That's something more than signal lanterns; it's a bonfire light. He's burning scraps in a pot.".

      The fire now shone up brightly, showing the masts and sails, and revealing the ship's course, which was such as to cam- her a long way to windward of us. The wind had hauled several points, and she was heading up so as to bring us in the boats nearly off her lee beam..

      "I'm afraid he'll pass without seeing us," said the fourth mate. "Our light doesn't show any great distance.".

      "Of course he'll keep his luff," answered Mr. Pomroy, "for he doesn't know how far we have run to windward, and he means to be on the safe side. But we want him down here now, for the whale has about given his last kick, and Mr. Paddack is setting his light. I'll see if I can fetch him with my gun.".

      His fowiing-piece, which he always carried under the stern sheets, was pulled out, and its sharp report rang in the air over our heads. It was heard and almost immediately answered by a blast from a tin horn, which came full and clear to our ears, while the ship's head swung off toward us, and the foresail was hauled up, giving us a fair view of the bonfire..

      "All right now! " the mate exclaimed, evidently much relieved in mind. "We'll save the whale and boat too. Cut a hole, Mr. Paddack, and get your line ready for streaming. We've made a good night's work of it, after all; though matters didn't look very promising an hour ago.".

      Before daylight we had our prize surging alongside, and the boats, including the capsized one, all in their places, and ready for action again..

      "'All's well that ends well,'" said old Captain Stetson, " and as we've got a large whale, I suppose I mustn't find any fault at disobedience of orders. But it is ticklish work going on to a whale in the dark, and I shouldn't have allowed it if I had been within reach or hail of you. I should have given the word to cut from him rather than to run the risk. It was well you fired your gam. too, or I should have been a long way to windward before daylight; for I couldn't see the boat's light, and, in fact, wasn't looking in that direction for it.".

      No old saying, perhaps, is more true, or more general in its application, than that quoted by the old gentleman in this instance. "All's well that ends well." A favorable result will justify any course of proceeding; and conduct, which, when crowned with success, is applauded by all the world as consummate generalship, would, in the event of failure, be universally condemned and stigmatized by the name of rashness, nay, foolhardiness.


      History is full of instances in point, several of which occur in the career of England's great naval hero, Nelson, who repeatedly disobeyed positive orders for the good of the service. Had he met with any great disaster by so doing, he would, without doubt, have been court mart ialed, and his memory associated with disgrace, instead of being, as now, the rallying cry of the British navy, and the pride of the whole British nation..

      In the adventurous life of the whaleman, cases are every day occurring where a subordinate officer is called upon to use his own judgment for the good of the voyage,— frequently to weigh it against the obligation of orders, general or special. Emergencies arise, far removed from the eye of the commanding officer, requiring instant decision and prompt action. Each subordinate, feeling his reputation for personal courage at stake, the effect is generally as here illustrated. Discretion is not considered the better part of valor, but it is thought in most cases advisable to err on the side of rashness. The effect of such a course is more favorable to an officer's general reputation, though success or failure is of course the standard by which he is judged in any particular instance..

      Our whale proved "a hundred barreler," and served to cheer all hands, and establish faith that our northern cruise would prove a good one.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Up North in the "Gorgon" - No. 2.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 63, No. 2 (Feb 1886)
Pages: 154-159