“‘You, cook, fire the works.’ This was an easy thing, for the carpenter had been thrusting his shavings into the furnace throughout the passage. Here be it said that in a whaling voyage the first fire in the try-works has to be fed for a time with wood. After that no wood is used… In a word, after being tried out, the crisp, shrivelled blubber, now called scraps or fritters … feed the flames. Like a plethoric burning martyr, or a self-consuming misanthrope, once ignited, the whale supplies his own fuel and burns by his own body. Would that he consumed his own smoke! for his smoke is horrible to inhale, and inhale it you must, and not only that, but you must live in it for the time. It has an unspeakable, wild, Hindoo odor about it, such as may lurk in the vicinity of funereal pyres. It smells like the left wing of the day of judgment; it is an argument for the pit.”
~ Herman Melville, Moby Dick, “The Try-Works”
So our first hunt wasn’t entirely a fiasco, just partly. Rawley got to use his woodcut-stamp of a sperm whale in the margin of the logbook, inking a “1” into the blank patch intended for “number of whales taken.” And I drew my first whale on my chart on the wall.
Of course the hunt is just the beginning of the work. A whaleship is not just a traveling hunting lodge—it’s a factory.
I had read plenty about the work of butchering whales, stripping off their “blankets” of blubber and boiling down those thick rubbery sheets into oil to be barreled. Still, it’s something else again to watch it. I switched from ink drawings to charcoal—nothing seemed better suited than smudged charcoal for the smoke-smeared scenes of our deck.
And I focused on those details that hadn’t come clear in print, but jumped to light in life. The precarious purchase of bare feet on the whale’s wet skin as it hung suspended beside the ship. The straining angle of the mast with tons of weight hanging from its yards. The strata visible in a cut cross-section of the whale’s outer layers. The absurdly narrow lower jaw that looked disproportionately small compared to the massive head, but stood taller than any of us when we brought it on deck to pull teeth. The peculiar crispy “whale fritters” being ladled off the top of the oil-pots and fed into the furnace-fire below. The greasy sheen of every face in the inescapable mist of airborne oil particles, fire-lit in the middle of the night.
Some elements of the experience still didn’t lend themselves to the sketchpad. Like the soggy, squidgy feel of oily clothes that none of us dared change because we’d only be ruining another set. Whatever we wore to begin trying out the whale, that’s what we wore for the duration. If I couldn’t draw it, though, my sketchbook still bore witness in the form of oily spots and smears.
And something I hadn’t really considered was the ongoing preparation of the whaleboats at the same time, readying them for the next round even as we worked our way through the results of the last engagement. The tubmen spent hours coiling lines, inches at a time, back into the tubs that go in the whaleboat sterns, ensuring that the lines could fly free without snagging or catching when a whale yanked unyieldingly at the other end. Harpooners spent hours resharpening blades they probably already could have shaved with. And the mates spent hours going over every board of the boats. No show-dog ever got more attentive grooming than those three whaleboats.
What I couldn’t imagine during the night and day of trying out? Ever getting that ship clean.
I could practically envision oil and blood and slippery spermaceti soaking into the porous wood of the deck, every surface was greased and grimed with smoke, and I was looking at the largest dirty dishes I’d ever seen in those trypots. As it turns out, though, sand and soapstone work miracles, and whalemen are astounding housekeepers when it comes to eradicating traces of their grimy trade. The clean-up didn’t last as long as the trying-out, but I could swear it took as much effort, including a man climbing into each of the trypots and scrubbing from the inside out until they reached a silvery shine. Several hundred gallons of seawater later, the deck, rails, pots, boats, and even the lower lines of the rigging had been duly washed and rinsed, the greasy residues replaced with cleaner salt stains.
And all that industrious effort would have to be repeated over and over and over to fill the hold. I won’t lie, I found the prospect daunting—and I was just an oily observer and not even a laborer.
When I finally stripped off the clothes I’d been wearing, I wished for a plastic garbage bag, just to keep them from touching anything else, soaked and splattered as they were with oil and whale-blood.
Facing that laundry load, I was keenly aware of the blood that wasn’t in evidence. By my carefully kept count, my period should have started eight days ago.