Whale Boat

Lying parallel to the skeleton is a boat that was once used to “give chase” to whales. At 48 feet in length, the juvenile male skeleton is only about half the size of Melville’s notorious white whale. Try to imagine chasing a fully mature creature in a boat of this size. Consider the ease with which a whale’s fluke might flip it over. Or picture the scene of disarray after Moby Dick dashes two of these boats together “like two rolling husks on a surf-beaten beach,” and then disappears in a “boiling maelstrom” in which “the odorous cedar chips of the wrecks dance round and round, like the grated nutmeg in a swiftly stirred bowl of punch.”

Take note of the rope coiled in tubs on the floor of the boat. This line was fastened to the harpoon, and if you consider the force and speed with which a sperm whale could run out that line, it makes sense to coil and store it with such precision. “As the least tangle or kink in the coiling would, in running out, infallibly take somebody’s arm, leg, or entire body off,” Ishmael explains, “the utmost precaution is used in stowing the line in its tub. Some harpooners will consume almost an entire morning in this business, carrying the line high aloft and then reeving it downwards through a block towards the tub, so as in the act of coiling to free it from all possible wrinkles and twists.”

Of course, human precaution cannot always keep chance or fate in check, and even the most precisely coiled lines can kink or knot. When Ahab’s line runs afoul, it catches “him round the neck,” and the voiceless captain is gone in an instant.

Melville Virtual Exhibition Gallery