A very engaging introduction to life aboard the American whaler, the business enterprise behind it, the contrast of cabin and forecastle life, as well as details of the actual pursuit.
p. 16, on monotony at sea: Nor was there more than negative consolation in the long hours of inactivity that often accompanied periods of poor luck on the whaling grounds. Aside from the fact that such inactivity only prolonged the length of the entire voyage, there was woefully little with which to occupy the spare time which did accrue. Sleeping, mending, reading, scrimshawing, "sky larking," and spinning years, interminably repeated, practically exhausted the possibilities of amusement or recreation. Only when a "gam" took place was there a welcome break in the monotonous round of life between sea and sky.
p. 71: So little of the precious cargo space was given over to the forecastle, and so little effort was made to keep it decently clean, that the living quarters were not only cramped, but nauseating. A ship’s library, which might have been provided easily and cheaply by simply dumping old books and magazines on board, was virtually unknown.
p. 72: And the provision of some what better and more varied food, a slightly larger and much cleaner forecastle, a reasonable amount of reading matter, and adequate medical care would have prevented a vast amount of discontent and resentment. In all these respects the attitude
of the whaling merchants would seem to have been penny-wise and pound-foolish. [Goes on to say the owners knew what they were doing.]
p. 106: The more worthy and respectable institutions of the community did practically nothing to meet this crying need of the sailor for wholesome recreation and decent care while ashore. The one organization which seemed to have a clear conception of the demands of the situation was the American Seamen’s Friend Society, which was formed in 1828 ‘to improve the social and moral condition of seamen, by uniting the efforts of the wise and the good in their behalf, by promoting in every port boarding-houses of good character, Savings Banks, Register Offices, Libraries, Museums, Reading Rooms and Schools, with the ministrations of the gospel and other religious blessings.’ The Society also published the Sailor’s Magazine, which appeared monthly throughout the greater part of the century.
But unfortunately the aims set forth in this admirable programme far outran the actual accomplishments of the Society. Of libraries, reading rooms, savings banks, and decent amusement places there was no hint in the whaling ports, though such institutions sometimes gained a precarious footing in the large maritime centers….
p. 107: Marine Bible Societies distributed Bibles and religious tracts amongst the crews of outgoing vessels…. In general, however, the orthodox churches, ministers and members alike, regarded the sailor as a moral pariah, and remained comfortably aloof from the forecastles and the waterfront…. The only ecclesiastical doors definitely and invitingly open to the whaleman were those of the Seamen’s Bethel, half-church, half-mission….
p. 127, quote of H. W. Cheever on life in the forecastle: Here, with no possibility of classification and separate quarters, with few or no books, or opportunity to use them if they were possessed, with the constant din of roistering disorder, superabundant profanity, and teeming lasciviousness of conversation and songs…three-fourths of their forty months’ absence was passed. (The Whale and His Captors, p. 305-6) Yet Olmsted describes a clean forecastle with table, lamp, and a library about two hundred volumes, but he says these were borrowed from the cabin (Incidents, p. 52).
p. 141, on downtime amusements: In more quiet moods, recreation included reading, writing, drawing, scrimshawing, smoking, reexamining old letters or other reminders of home and friends, and mending. The veteran tar was adept in the use of a needle; and necessity
taught him to perform such prodigies of thrift in mending the various articles of his wardrobe that he was often clad in garments made up of "patch upon patch, and a patch over all."
But the two most picturesque forms of diversion, both peculiar to whaling, were "scrimshawing" and "gamming." A "scrimshawer" was one who carved and decorated by hand numerous articles made from the teeth and jaw-bone of the sperm whale. To most whalemen such slow, tedious work was a welcome means of whiling away many spare hours of a three or four years’ voyage. Both utilitarian and ornamental articles were produced in forms and quantities limited only by the perseverance, skill, and ingenuity of the carvers; but canehandles, pie-wheels, chess-men, and miniature vessels were among the most familiar products of these floating workshops.
"Gamming," on the other hand, was as brief and infrequent as "scrimshawing" was long and constant. When two friendly whalers met at sea, the captain of one vessel, with a boat’s crew, went aboard the second whaler while his first mate remained behind to entertain the mate and a boat’s crew from the other craft. Both parties, after weeks or months of solitary cruising, were hungry for the news, gossip, and reading matter of the other.
p. 177, on boredom: On the other hand, when no whales were sighted for weeks or months in succession, the very tedium and monotony of the enforced idleness became almost insufferable. The scanty stock of reading matter was soon exhausted; the entire repertory of songs and yards was known to all; the mending gave out; card playing was forbidden or waned in interest; scrimshawing could not be pursued interminably; and even sleep could not be courted both day and night.