Monday, August 11, 2008

carried overboard by the line

Across the street from the whaling museum is the Seamen's Bethel - it's the chapel the narrator visits early in Moby-Dick. In the book, the minister gives an impossibly long and boring sermon about Jonah and the whale, which, I'll admit, I skimmed. If by "skimmed" we mean "read a few words on each page."

Whaling was dangerous stuff. So going to church before a voyage seemed like a good idea.

Here's how whaling works: Guys stand atop the masts. When they see a whale spout, they yell ("thar she blows!"). The ship puts out its boats - maybe 15, 20 feet and powered by oars. Whole buncha sailors pull on the oars. When they get close to the whale, the harpooner drops his oar, jumps up and throws his big ole iron harpoon into the whale; it's got a rope on it, and the whale runs, dragging the boat, possibly for hours. Sometimes a few boats got a harpoon into the same whale. Then when the whale is tired, they stab it a bunch of times and kill it, then drag it back to the ship.

Sometimes the rope got tangled as it was running out and pulled someone overboard and underwater. Sometimes whales sank boats. Sometimes a whale would pull the boat so far that the ship never found the boat again. One of my favorite things about Moby-Dick is the chapters, scattered through the book, where the Pequod meets other ships - there's a particularly poignant one toward the end where the Pequod meets a ship looking for its lost boat, and it turns out the captain's 12-year-old son was on it. (Captain Ahab doesn't care about anything but finding the white whale and is like, whatever, that's your problem.)

Families of lost seamen could pay to have a tablet put on the wall of the Seaman's Bethel. Melville quoted them in the book and they're still there today:

1 comment:

Sophist said...

Wow that is so cool!