With reference to the whaling scene shortly to be described, as well as fo_he better understanding of all similar scenes elsewhere presented, I hav_ere to speak of the magical, sometimes horrible whale-line.
The line originally used in the fishery was of the best hemp, slightly vapore_ith tar, not impregnated with it, as in the case of ordinary ropes; for whil_ar, as ordinarily used, makes the hemp more pliable to the rope-maker, an_lso renders the rope itself more convenient to the sailor for common shi_se; yet, not only would the ordinary quantity too much stiffen the whale-lin_or the close coiling to which it must be subjected; but as most seamen ar_eginning to learn, tar in general by no means adds to the rope’s durabilit_r strength, however much it may give it compactness and gloss.
Of late years the Manilla rope has in the American fishery almost entirel_uperseded hemp as a material for whale-lines; for, though not so durable a_emp, it is stronger, and far more soft and elastic; and I will add (sinc_here is an aesthetics in all things), is much more handsome and becoming t_he boat, than hemp. Hemp is a dusky, dark fellow, a sort of Indian; bu_anilla is as a golden-haired Circassian to behold.
The whale-line is only two thirds of an inch in thickness. At first sight, yo_ould not think it so strong as it really is. By experiment its one and fift_arns will each suspend a weight of one hundred and twenty pounds; so that th_hole rope will bear a strain nearly equal to three tons. In length, th_ommon sperm whale-line measures something over two hundred fathoms. Toward_he stern of the boat it is spirally coiled away in the tub, not like th_orm-pipe of a still though, but so as to form one round, cheese-shaped mas_f densely bedded “sheaves,” or layers of concentric spiralizations, withou_ny hollow but the “heart,” or minute vertical tube formed at the axis of th_heese. As the least tangle or kink in the coiling would, in running out,
infallibly take somebody’s arm, leg, or entire body off, the utmost precautio_s used in stowing the line in its tub. Some harpooneers will consume almos_n entire morning in this business, carrying the line high aloft and the_eeving it downwards through a block towards the tub, so as in the act o_oiling to free it from all possible wrinkles and twists.
In the English boats two tubs are used instead of one; the same line bein_ontinuously coiled in both tubs. There is some advantage in this; becaus_hese twin-tubs being so small they fit more readily into the boat, and do no_train it so much; whereas, the American tub, nearly three feet in diamete_nd of proportionate depth, makes a rather bulky freight for a craft whos_lanks are but one-half inch in thickness; for the bottom of the whale-boat i_ike critical ice, which will bear up a considerable distributed weight, bu_ot very much of a concentrated one. When the painted canvas cover is clappe_n the american line-tub, the boat looks as if it were pulling off with _rodigious great wedding-cake to present to the whales.
Both ends of the line are exposed; the lower end terminating in an eye-splic_r loop coming up from the bottom against the side of the tub, and hangin_ver its edge completely disengaged from everything. This arrangement of th_ower end is necessary on two accounts. First: In order to facilitate th_astening to it of an additional line from a neighboring boat, in case th_tricken whale should sound so deep as to threaten to carry off the entir_ine originally attached to the harpoon. In these instances, the whale o_ourse is shifted like a mug of ale, as it were, from the one boat to th_ther; though the first boat always hovers at hand to assist its consort.
Second: This arrangement is indispensable for common safety’s sake; for wer_he lower end of the line in any way attached to the boat, and were the whal_hen to run the line out to the end almost in a single, smoking minute as h_ometimes does, he would not stop there, for the doomed boat would infallibl_e dragged down after him into the profundity of the sea; and in that case n_own-crier would ever find her again.
Before lowering the boat for the chase, the upper end of the line is taken af_rom the tub, and passing round the loggerhead there, is again carried forwar_he entire length of the boat, resting crosswise upon the loom or handle o_very man’s oar, so that it jogs against his wrist in rowing; and also passin_etween the men, as they alternately sit at the opposite gunwales, to th_eaded chocks or grooves in the extreme pointed prow of the boat, where _ooden pin or skewer the size of a common quill, prevents it from slippin_ut. From the chocks it hangs in a slight festoon over the bows, and is the_assed inside the boat again; and some ten or twenty fathoms (called box-line)
being coiled upon the box in the bows, it continues its way to the gunwal_till a little further aft, and is then attached to the short-warp— the rop_hich is immediately connected with the harpoon; but previous to tha_onnexion, the short-warp goes through sundry mystifications too tedious t_etail.
Thus the whale-line folds the whole boat in its complicated coils, twistin_nd writhing around it in almost every direction. All the oarsmen are involve_n its perilous contortions; so that to the timid eye of the landsman, the_eem as Indian jugglers, with the deadliest snakes sportively festooning thei_imbs. Nor can any son of mortal woman, for the first time, seat himself ami_hose hempen intricacies, and while straining his utmost at the oar, bethin_im that at any unknown instant the harpoon may be darted, and all thes_orrible contortions be put in play like ringed lightnings; he cannot be thu_ircumstanced without a shudder that makes the very marrow in his bones t_uiver in him like a shaken jelly. Yet habit—strange thing! what cannot habi_ccomplish?—Gayer sallies, more merry mirth, better jokes, and brighte_epartees, you never heard over your mahogany, than you will hear over th_alf-inch white cedar of the whaleboat, when thus hung in hangman’s nooses;
and, like the six burghers of Calais before King Edward, the six men composin_he crew pull into the jaws of death, with a halter around every neck, as yo_ay say.
Perhaps a very little thought will now enable you to account for thos_epeated whaling disasters—some few of which are casually chronicled—of thi_an or that man being taken out of the boat by the line, and lost. For, whe_he line is darting out, to be seated then in the boat, is like being seate_n the midst of the manifold whizzings of a steam-engine in full play, whe_very flying beam, and shaft, and wheel, is grazing you. It is worse; for yo_annot sit motionless in the heart of these perils, because the boat i_ocking like a cradle, and you are pitched one way and the other, without th_lightest warning; and only by a certain self-adjusting buoyancy an_imultaneousness of volition and action, can you escape being made a Mazepp_f, and run away with where the all-seeing sun himself could never pierce yo_ut.
Again: as the profound calm which only apparently precedes and prophesies o_he storm, is perhaps more awful than the storm itself; for, indeed, the cal_s but the wrapper and envelope of the storm; and contains it in itself, a_he seemingly harmless rifle holds the fatal powder, and the ball, and th_xplosion; so the graceful repose of the line, as it silently serpentine_bout the oarsmen before being brought into actual play— this is a thing whic_arries more of true terror than any other aspect of this dangerous affair.
But why say more? All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born wit_alters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudde_urn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, everpresent perils o_ife. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you woul_ot at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before you_vening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.