The competition among the boat-crews on a whaleship was always spirited. To be the fastest gave the six men bragging rights over the rest of the ship's crew. The pecking order of the Essex was about to be decided.
With nearly a mile between the ship and the whales, the three crews had plenty of space to test their speed. "This trial more than any other during our voyage," Nickerson remembered, "was the subject of much debate and excitement among our crews; for neither was willing to yield the palm to the other."
As the unsuspecting whales moved along at between three and four knots, the three whaleboats bore down on them at five or six knots. Even though all shared in the success of any single boat, no one wanted to be passed by the others; boat-crews were known to foul one another deliberately as they raced side by side behind the giant flukes of a sperm whale.
Sperm whales are typically underwater for ten to twenty minutes, although dives of up to ninety minutes have been reported. The whaleman's rule of thumb was that, before diving, a whale blew once for each minute it would spend underwater. Whalemen also knew that while underwater the whale continued at the same speed and in the same direction as it had been traveling before the dive. Thus, an experienced whaleman could calculate with remarkable precision where a submerged whale was likely to reappear.
Nickerson was the after oarsman on Chase's boat, placing him just forward of the first mate at the steering oar. Chase was the only man in the boat who could actually see the whale up ahead. While each mate or captain had his own style, they all coaxed and cajoled their crews with words that evoked the savagery, excitement, and the almost erotic bloodlust associated with pursuing one of the largest mammals on the planet. Adding to the tension was the need to remain as quiet as possible so as not to alarm or "gally" the whale. William Comstock recorded the whispered words of a Nantucket mate:
Do for heaven's sake spring. The boat don't move. You're all asleep; see, see! There she lies; skote, skote! I love you, my dear fellows, yes, yes, I do; I'll do anything for you, I'll give you my heart's blood to drink; only take me up to this whale only this time, for this once, pull. Oh, St. Peter, St. Jerome, St. Stephen, St. James, St. John, the devil on two sticks; carry me up; O, let me tickle him, let me feel of his ribs. There, there, go on; O, O, O, most on, most on. Stand up, Starbuck [the harpooner]. Don't hold your iron that way; put one hand over the end of the pole. Now, now, look out. Dart, dart.
As it turned out, Chase's crew proved the fastest that day, and soon they were within harpooning distance of the whale. Now the attention turned to the boatsteerer, who had just spent more than a mile rowing as hard as he possibly could. His hands were sore, and the muscles in his arms were trembling with exhaustion. All the while he had been forced to keep his back turned to a creature that was now within a few feet, or possibly inches, of him, its tail - more than twelve feet across - working up and down within easy reach of his head. He could hear it-the hollow wet roar of the whale's lungs pumping air in and out of its sixty-ton body.
But for Chase's novice harpooner, the twenty-year-old Benjamin Lawrence, the mate himself was as frightening as any whale. Having been a boatsteerer on the Essex's previous voyage, Chase had definite ideas on how a whale should be harpooned and maintained a continual patter of barely audible, expletive-laced advice. Lawrence tucked the end of his oar handle under the boat's gunnel, then braced his leg against the thigh thwart and took up the harpoon. There it was, the whale's black body, glistening in the sun. The blowhole was on the front left side of the head, and the spout enveloped Lawrence in a foul-smelling mist that stung his skin.
From In the Heart of the Sea : The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick. © 2000 , Nathaniel Philbrick used by permission of the publisher.
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