Like Ships Passing

If you’ve been stuck on a whaling ship for 80 million nautical miles with the same guys, telling the same stories, making the same jokes, and exchanging the same furtive glances, the sight of a new ship with different guys with different stories, jokes, and bodies would gladden the hearts and arouse the pituitary glands of just about everyone. Except for Captain Ahab, of course, who has just one thing on his mind, and by now I think we all know what that one thing is.

The ship's name is the Goney (aka Albatross), and she rates—using the Trump classification system—a four at best. She’s all at once pale, skinny, and fat. “This craft was bleached like the skeleton of a stranded walrus,” describes Ishmael. Ouch! Talk about body image issues. And there’s no hiding her age, either. “All down her sides, this spectral appearance was traced with long channels of reddened rust, while all her spars and her rigging were like the thick branches of trees furred over with hoar-frost.”

The Goney guys, to the dismay of the Pequod squad, are even uglier than their ship. Long in the tooth and even longer in beard, the “forlorn-looking fishermen” seemed “clad in skins of beasts, so torn and bepatched the raiment that had survived nearly four years of cruising.”

Still, you take what you can get. So Ishmael gets all excited about the incipient “gam” that will take place between the two ships. Does anyone give a damn what a gam is? Of course not. But our Ishmael, as per usual, begins a dissertation on the subject that begins much like a seventh-grader’s book report: “Webster’s dictionary describes a “gam” as…” Psych! Webster’s doesn’t have a definition for gam, Ishmael scoffs, even though “this same expressive word has now for many years been in constant use among some fifteen thousand true born Yankees.”

Ishmael is such an insufferable egghead. “Certainly, it needs a definition,” he says, “and should be incorporated into the Lexicon. With that view, let me learnedly define it.” So he does, and in a style such that if perchance Noah Webster should happen to swim by, he could just copy and paste it into his deficient dictionary.

GAM. NOUN--A social meeting of two (or more) Whaleships, generally on a cruising ground; when, after exchanging hails, they exchange visits by boats’ crew, the two captains remaining for the time, on board of one ship, and the two chief mates on the other.

A gam can be a brief but intimate meeting of just the top dogs (like sniffing each others’ butts) or a longer affair with the entire crew (like a singles mixer).

However, when the Pequod and the Goney draw near each other, hopes for a gam of any kind are quashed faster than you can say “wham bam, thank you, ma’am.”

Why? Because Captain Ahab has just one question for the captain of The Goney. You guessed it: “Have You Seen the White Whale?”

The Goney captain (we never learn his name) can’t even manage a simple yes or no, as weird stuff starts happening “at the first mere mention of the White Whale’s name to another ship.”

When the “strange captain” leans over the edge of his ship to speak into his trumpet (megaphones hadn’t been invented yet), “it somehow fell from his hand into the sea; and the wind now rising amain, he in vain strove to make himself heard without it.”

Then all these cute little fishes that had been merrily swimming alongside the Pequod freak out. “They darted away with what seemed shuddering fins, and ranged themselves fore and aft with the stranger’s flanks.” Meaning they quit the Pequod and swam to the Goney. They aren’t going to wait around for crazy Ahab to use them for target practice and turn them into filet o’ fishes.

Ahab does not fail to notice their mass exodus. “Swim away from me, do ye?” he says. Indeed they do. Ishmael and the boys would be wise to do the same. Unfortunately they don’t have fish for brains.