“No small number of these whaling seamen belong to the Azores, where the outward bound Nantucket whalers frequently touch to augment their crews from the hardy peasants of those rocky shores… How it is, there is no telling, but Islanders seem to make the best whalemen.”
~ Herman Melville, Moby Dick, “Knights and Squires”
If Melville had it right that “Islanders make the best whalemen,” we should have it made. We now had four Azores islanders, five Pacific Islanders, and half a dozen Nantucket islanders. Oh, and Clarke from Ireland and Samson from Jamaica. Plus me, if I counted.
Altogether during our Azores stop we had shipped three new men, five goats, hundreds of pounds of potatoes and corn and beans, barrels of oranges, crates of tea, several large casks of wine, braids of onions and garlic, raisins, butter, and a smaller selection of items that wouldn’t keep indefinitely, like bananas, eggs, cheeses, tomatoes, and the spiced linguica sausages.
As for me, I was looking forward to a sausage omelet. Samson had already proved himself quite the culinary artist—a trait that more than made up for his unfriendliness, though I kept trying to win him over. I’d even tried to curry his favor by including peppercorns, vanilla beans, saffron, and piri-piri hot peppers among the items we brought aboard from the island, figuring spices might be one way to a cook’s heart. He chased me away from the galley as he always did, although I noticed he used what I brought him. I took him as a challenge—there must be some way to break through. In the meantime, I still enjoyed the table he furnished.
Rhodes was a far more sociable sort, his carpenter’s bench set up amidships and never idle. He and Campbell spent most of a day building a goat pen on the foredeck, and Jimmy was well on his way to making pets of “the girls.” Unlike his counterpart Peter Coffin, who came from a sailing-and-whaling family, Jimmy came from farm stock. He still blanched with nerves when anyone asked him to tie a knot, but I suspected he wouldn’t turn a hair at whale-butchery.
All in all I found myself curious to see what the hunt would bring out in our various crew members. Several of the green hands had been bumped from the whaleboat-crews by the addition of experienced Azoreans, and on the whole I thought them relieved. They remained in their watches, but they’d join the craftsmen and cabin boys (and me) as “ship’s keepers” when the whaleboats took off. Of course, it also didn’t escape my notice that we now had “auxiliaries” if anyone got injured, or worse. We had spares (or the makings) for practically everything else on the ship that might be needed or replaced. It was only prudent to have men in reserve as well.
I half expected our first chase to be a fiasco—maybe in part because I never had seen a hunt and the whole thing still seemed so impossibly far-fetched, even surrounded as I was by the tools and hardware and practitioners of the trade. Given the low bar I’d set with that expectation, the hunt was actually a wild success by comparison. Well, at least not a debacle. We ended the day with a whale at our rail.
Makanui, already enjoying a reputation for sharp eyes, set all hearts racing with his halloo from aloft. Not the scripted “thar she blows” of movies and literature, but a more primal response to the long-awaited sight of a spout.
“Blow! Blow! Him whale wen’ blow! An’ anoddah! Two whale, t’ree whale!” He punctuated this count with something between a yodel and a yeehaw—every culture has some version—“Auwe!”
Rawley lost no time whistling up the crew, hollering “All hands! All hands!” while Dickson at the wheel altered course, steering by Makanui’s outstretched arm. Heads appeared everywhere—Samson popping out of his cookhouse, Rhodes springing up from behind his workbench and hurrying to take the helm from Dickson, men of the larboard watch tumbling up from the foc’s’le, Pacific Islanders seeming to rain down from the rigging.
It all reminded me of a school fire drill. Indeed, we’d drilled several times at lowering the boats—but never with such an audible hum of energy as now. And there was no drill for the battle.
Within a mile of the quarry Rhodes headed up into the wind, luffing the sails and slowing her forward motion—three boats hit the water within moments of one another, and the race was on. I’d heard enough challenges between the boat-crews to know they were racing one another as well as the whales, calculating where the spouts would resurface, and vying to reach them first. A whale represented income to the whole crew regardless of who fastened it, but there was pride and reputation at stake nonetheless.
Dickson’s stock had gone up when Vieira and Francisco replaced two of his green hands, joining Cavalho, Carver, and the Nantucket harpooner Folger. Still, I noted that he still had one green hand in Carver, that the Nantucketer didn’t like the black man, and that there were two different languages at odds in his boat. Possible recipes for difficulty.
Franklin had the fourth Azorean, de Palva, along with Red Kerchief, Swede Johanssen, Clarke as harpooner, and another Nantucketer in Walpole—all of them experienced whalers, though only Clarke and Franklin had worked together before.
And Rawley had the “cannibal crew”—Holokai at the harpoon, Makanui as bow oarsman, Kaimana the midships oarsman, Akamu as tub oarsman, and Tua at the aft oar. Obviously the Islanders had all been around the horn—none of them were new to sailing (or rowing), but only Holokai had experience at whaling.
As all three groups pulled away, I heard Dickson’s “Give way all,” and then a chant start up among Rawley’s rowers. I wished I could hear the cajoling patter from each of those mates. Logs and literature portrayed the urging on of rowers as practically an art form, often laced with profanity or violent imagery—but I was unlikely ever to hear an example for myself. Obadiah’s indulgence might (however reluctantly) extend to trousers and jaunts into the rigging, but he’d never have me in a working whaleboat. Well, maybe I could ask him for a private demonstration—he’d led these boats often enough himself.
As I’d privately predicted, the Pacific outriggermen outpulled the other two boats, all three aiming to intersect with the invisible path of the diving leviathans. Sperm whales are predictable enough to make it a matter of geometry and timing, and the next vertical froth of exhaled air appeared just off Rawley’s bow. Even from the distance of our deck, the relative size of the whale to the boat made me catch my breath. I wondered what had ever possessed the first people to attack such a creature on its home turf from such a small and upsettable platform as these little open boats.
The boat had considerably greater momentum than the cetacean’s leisurely pace—Holokai smoothly stowed his oar and snatched up his weapon, turning fluidly to face forward, brace himself against the thigh gunwale, and heave his harpoon at the heavy exposed mass of its back. One whale fast! And so began the famous “Nantucket sleigh ride”—a whaleboat pulled behind a livid leviathan like a waterskier behind a powerboat.
Beside me, Obadiah told off Turnbow to keep eyes on the first boat, and turned his glass to the other two, one now on each side of a second surfaced whale. He grunted with annoyance when both harpooners struck at it, and I soon saw the danger. Two boats in tow would bang together or foul each other’s lines, increasing the chance of one or both being upset in the whale’s wake. We could see Dickson gesturing forcibly, and Folger swiftly moving to cut the line of his own harpoon. Freed from its tow, Dickson’s craft immediately dropped behind its fellow, just as another whale surfaced. Had they held back from the earlier target, they would have been perfectly positioned, but now their tub of line connected to an empty end of rope.
Franklin’s boat, meanwhile, had surged ahead but lost its hold. We could see Clarke pulling in the slack harpoon line hand over hand, while Walpole coiled it haphazardly back into its tub. At least they, unlike Dickson’s crew, hadn’t lost their harpoon to their prey.
Two dispirited groups rowed back to the ship, hoisted their boats back up to her rails, and turned eyes to Rawley’s ongoing engagement. Obadiah gave orders to fall off the wind, trim sails, and follow the fight, but he kept his own eyes on the distancing whaleboat, traveling at a speed our ship wouldn’t achieve in a gale.
Rawley and Holokai had exchanged places—a precarious procedure in a rocking and rocketing open boat, and the Islanders were now working to pull in the long line, drawing themselves within lancing distance of the whale. Unlike the initial harpoon, which simply needed to “stick” and attach the whale, the lance has to inflict the mortal damage to lungs or heart. We knew Rawley had hit home when the next spout went up red.
From that point it’s mostly a matter of time. But imagine the power of a schoolbus-sized creature desperately thrashing and trying to catch its breath while it drowns in its own blood. It’s ugly. It’s disquieting. It’s dangerous. It’s impressive.