Ishmael Gets Wet

For the first time into the voyage, the Pequod has an opportunity to take down a whale. Or two. Heck, there’s a whole school of them just hanging around their lockers. But what starts as a thrilling adventure—“full of quick wonder and awe”—becomes just a big wet disaster. Four boats take up the chase and four boats return—with nary a whale to show for it. Not one whale of any color, much less a white one.

Ishmael is an oarsman on Starbuck’s boat. In between strokes, he shoots lusty glances at Ahab’s personal detail of five hand-picked rowers. They are outdistancing everyone. “Those tiger yellow creatures of his seemed all steel and whalebone; like five trip-hammers they rose and fell with regular strokes of strength.” Fedallah, the head guy, is particularly fetching. “He had thrown aside his black jacket, and displayed his naked chest with the whole part of his body above the gunwale, clearly cut against the alternating depressions of the watery horizon.”

Ishmael snaps back to attention when Starbuck entreats his oarsmen to “pull strong, come what will.” What comes is nasty weather. Dark clouds form, the wind picks up, and a thick mist enshrouds everything. The other three captains, even nutty Ahab, look at the gathering storm and throw it into reverse. Not so Starbuck. He tells his guys, “There is still time to kill a fish yet before the squall comes.”

Starbuck is an idiot. And his crew is even dumber for obeying him. Soon they hear “an enormous wallowing sound as of fifty elephants stirring in their litter.” Since elephants aren’t often found in the ocean, one can only assume the sound is coming from a whale. Which is confirmed when Starbuck sees its definitive characteristic. “That’s his hump. There, there, give it to him!” he commands his harpooneer, Queequeg.

But the “darted iron of Queequeg” may as well have been a bobby pin for all the damage it does. The whale “rolled and tumbled like an earthquake beneath us.” If you’re sitting in a boat and you’ve got an earthquake erupting beneath you, you’re not going to be sitting for long. Starbuck’s crew is “tossed helter-skelter in the white curdling cream of the squall.” Meanwhile the whale “merely grazed by the iron, escaped.” No doubt sniggering all the way.

The guys—along with their oars, harpoons, and other various and sundry accoutrements—are scattered everywhere. After they swim around retrieving all their stuff, they wait miserably—“wet, drenched, and shivering cold”—for the Pequod to rescue them. The storm continues to rage around them. It is dawn by the time the last man—Ishmael—is dragged back onto the deck.

While still wet and “shaking myself in my jacket to fling off the water,” Ishmael asks a few pointed questions.

To Queequeg: “My fine friend, does this sort of thing often happen?”

To Stubb: “Is going plump on a flying whale with your sail set in a foggy squall the height of a whaleman’s discretion?”

To Flask: “Is it an unalterable law in this fishery, for an oarsman to break his own back pulling himself back-foremost into death’s jaws?”

The answers are yes, yes, and yes.

With that, Ishmael decides to draw up his will. “Queequeg,” said I, “come along, you shall be my lawyer, executor, and legatee.”

At least Ishmael has one thing that’s still dry—his wit.