September 4, 2009

Melville and whaleboats

Here's our whaleboat, now plying a painted sea, propelled by a phantom crew of six oarsmen in a dangerous quest for hearts.

(Click the image for a giant enlargement.)

Rereading several chapters of Moby Dick, which Herman Melville wrote while living in Pittsfield, my town, I now know more about rigging a whaleboat.

Hundreds of feet of line are carefully coiled in a big tub. (The tub full of line is just forward of the harpooned heart in my boat.) That line is then run aft to a capstan and then is returned forward to the harpoon. In this configuration it runs between each of the pairs of oarsmen.

Both harpoons are attached to the line to give the harpooner a second chance after he throws the the first. If he doesn't have time to heave the second it goes overboard. The other end of the whale line is not attached to anything. If it were, a deep diving whale would drag the boat down into the depths.

As the crew "pull into the jaws of death," Melville writes, "the line silently serpentines about the oarsmen before being brought into actual play -- this is a thing which carries more of true terror than any other aspect of this dangerous affair."

When the whale is harpooned, he runs and the line plays out fast and furiously. A kink in the rope can take a man's arm or leg off, or worse, yank him from the boat into the sea.

"But why say more?" Melville asks. "All men live enveloped in whale-lines."

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Really love this piece. Might be one of my top 5 favorites.