Lean forward…dip the oars into the water…pull; lean…dip…pull. Over and over. Again and again. And the ship gets no closer. Towing twenty tons of dead weight slows the whaleboat down. Lean…dip…pull. By the time the sun is directly overhead, the blood from the whale’s final fury has dried on your clothes and skin. The sweat rolling down your face turns it into a sticky mess.
Closing your eyes, you lean…dip…pull, hearing the shush of the oars and timing your strokes to coincide. Groans get louder. You listen. They’re coming from your mouth now. Lean…dip…pull. The pain from the cracks in your dry lips are barely noticeable. Lean…dip…pull.
The sun is halfway down to the western horizon. Your arms are numb; the muscles in your back seek rest when you lean, only to rebel when you begin to pull…again. Lean…dip…pull.
At last…the ship…you see your friends. Lean…dip…pull. You can almost touch it. Lean…dip…pull. The Mate yells something, but the words are lost in a fog or weariness. Somehow the whaleboat ends up beside the ship. There, arms are reaching down. You lift dead weights up; no, they’re your arms. Someone grabs them and you’re being hoisted out of the boat. You collapse to the deck.
Your body might be as dead as that whale. But the Captain doesn’t care. At the moment, you hate him. He’s demanding that you get back on your feet. It’s time to cut it in.
Blood rains down upon you, and the smell fills your nostrils. As the whale thrashes and spins in a fury, the Mate has you back off and wait. When the water is still and you think its fight with death is over, the Mate brings your little whaleboat around till it is head on with one of the whale’s eyes. Cautiously, he leans out with the lance. Every one of your muscles is tensed and ready to take the boat to the stern should the beast rally once more. The Mate stretches the lance forward and with a quick motion pricks the eye. The whale makes no response. Finally, you let out the breath you’ve been holding; your body suddenly feels as limp as a wet rag.
Now you scan the horizon for your ship. Ah, there it is, at least its sails, maybe a mile off. Unfortunately, the breeze has stopped.
The Mate returns to the steering oar, and the harpooner returns to the front thwart.
“Man the oars!” yells the Mate and you begin towing BIG twenty ton sperm whale to your ship.
Finally! The boat slows till its movement could be due just to the breeze, or the current. But you know what keeps the line taut. The Mate loosens the rope from the loggerhead and orders you and the other 4 crewmen to begin pulling it in. Pull after pull, one draw at a time, your boat advances…toward that 50 ton monster that you pricked with a harpoon. The rope disappears in the sea in front of you.
Suddenly, shivers rise up your back; and your arms want to cease in place; not a hundred feet in front of you the line ends…attached to a black form just below the surface. It dwarfs your little whaleboat; and its tail moves slowly, powerfully up and down tugging constantly on the rope.
“Pull on, men!” The Mate bounces up and down with excitement.
You don’t want to bring yourself any closer. It can’t be safe! But you do.
“That whale is ours!” screams the Mate. “Take your oars.”
The boat is maneuvered square on to the beast’s side. With a sweep of the steering oar, the harpooner brings the boat in close and the Mate sticks the lance into the whale’s side. When the long, sharp weapon enters his flesh, the whale’s head turns to bite. But the harpooner uses the steering oar to pull the boat to safety just in time. The whale’s massive jaws follow the boat but can’t quite reach it.
“Shhushhh!” The whale is struggling to breathe. You hear his fear. He moves his head back forward and his tale splashes trying to escape. But he’s tired. Suddenly, in a frenzy, it strikes out wildly in all directions, then settles down again.
The harpooner sweeps the boat in and the mate churns the lance down…up…down… The whale raises its tail toward the boat like club over a pest. The boat is swept away just as the tail crashes down.
“Fire in the chimney!” yells one of the men.
…”Stern all! Stern all; for your lives!!”
You lean back, pull the oar handles to your chest, dip the ends into the sea, and push with every muscle. Your breathing is quick; your eyes are riveted open; your muscles quiver as the beast behind you thrashes about. Your little boat is now attached to a creature more than 60 feet in length and weighing over 50 tons. You lean, dip, and push even harder.
“For your lives!!” yells the officer again.
You’re facing him as he stands in the stern staring with wide eyed excitement at what you cannot see. The thrashing has stopped, and the officer tells you lift the ends of the oars from the water and quit rowing. The boat is picking up speed as he tosses another loop of rope about the loggerhead. The line runs from its tub, back to and around the loggerhead, and then, tight as a bow-string, over each oar, and out the bow. It moves so fast you cannot see its threads, though you feel them flying past your wrist. You and your mates struggle to bring the oars inboard. Smoke rises from the loggerhead as the rope winds around it.
“Wet the line!” yells the officer.
The seaman with the tub of rope in front of him pulls off his hat and dips water from beside the boat onto the rope as it flies from the tub. You turn to face forward carefully avoiding the rope. To get tangled in it would result in your being pulled overboard and down.
As the speed of the rope diminishes, the boat races faster and faster until your stomach flops from your gut into your throat each time the whaleboat careens up and down an ocean swell…over and over. Spray covers you. The rope…it stretches forward into the sea…pulling you on taking you where it wills. What kind of wondrous power churns at the end of that line!
After my last update, I exchanged emails with one of the recipients. He mentioned the difficulty of a large sailing ship navigating a harbor full of anchored vessels. That was especially true for whalers like the Christopher Mitchell. These ships often had a good number of “greenhands,” or first time sailors. Like the old shanty asks, “What do you do with a drunken sailor?” You wouldn’t put him to hauling ropes. But they put greenhands on such work. In Whale Hunt, Nelson Cole Haley describes that scene. While those on shore may gasp or laugh and other crews might jeer as the Mitchell veered left and right (like a drunken sailor), his Captain stood proudly on his ship as if it were manned by the most experienced crew.
Turning a green crew into a finely tuned machine became one of the first orders of business. To see how greenhands responded to such training, have a look at First Fury.