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Page 321


A word concerning an incident in the last chapter.

According to the invariable usage of the fishery, the whale-boat
pushes off from the ship, with the headsman or whale-keeler
as temporary steersman, and the harpooneer or whale-fastener
pulling the foremost oar, the one known as the
harpooneer-oar. Now it needs a strong, nervous arm to strike
the first iron into the fish; for often, in what is called a long
dart, the heavy implement has to be flung to the distance of
twenty or thirty feet. But however prolonged and exhausting
the chase, the harpooneer is expected to pull his oar meanwhile
to the uttermost; indeed, he is expected to set an example of
superhuman activity to the rest, not only by incredible rowing,
but by repeated loud and intrepid exclamations; and what it is
to keep shouting at the top of one's compass, while all the other
muscles are strained and half started—what that is none
know but those who have tried it. For one, I cannot bawl
very heartily and work very recklessly at one and the same
time. In this straining, bawling state, then, with his back to
the fish, all at once the exhausted harpooneer hears the exciting
cry—“Stand up, and give it to him!” He now has to drop
and secure his oar, turn round on his centre half way, seize his
harpoon from the crotch, and with what little strength may
remain, he essays to pitch it somehow into the whale. No
wonder, taking the whole fleet of whalemen in a body, that out
of fifty fair chances for a dart, not five are successful; no wonder
that so many hapless harpooneers are madly cursed and disrated;
no wonder that some of them actually burst their blood-vessels


Page 322
in the boat; no wonder that some sperm whalemen are
absent four years with four barrels; no wonder that to many
ship owners, whaling is but a losing concern; for it is the
harpooneer that makes the voyage, and if you take the breath
out of his body how can you expect to find it there when most

Again, if the dart be successful, then at the second critical
instant, that is, when the whale starts to run, the boat-header
and harpooneer likewise start to running fore and aft, to the imminent
jeopardy of themselves and every one else. It is then
they change places; and the headsman, the chief officer of the
little craft, takes his proper station in the bows of the boat.

Now, I care not who maintains the contrary, but all this is
both foolish and unnecessary. The headsman should stay in
the bows from first to last; he should both dart the harpoon
and the lance, and no rowing whatever should be expected of
him, except under circumstances obvious to any fisherman. I
know that this would sometimes involve a slight loss of speed in
the chase; but long experience in various whalemen of more
than one nation has convinced me that in the vast majority of
failures in the fishery, it has not by any means been so much
the speed of the whale as the before described exhaustion of the
harpooneer that has caused them.

To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooneers
of this world must start to their feet from out of idleness, and
not from out of toil.