Frank Bullen begins his account of hunting for sperm whales with a description of how one became a member of the crew on a whaler in the late 1800’s — make sure that you’re in a seaport and soon enough you’ll be in luck:
Sailor Jack is always hankering for shore when he is at sea, but when he is “outward bound”–that is, when his money is all gone — he is like a cat in the rain there. So as MY money was all gone, I was hungry for a ship; and when a long, keen-looking man with a goat-like beard, and mouth stained with dry tobacco-juice, hailed me one afternoon at the street-corner, I answered very promptly, scenting a berth. “Lookin’ fer a ship, stranger?” said he. “Yes; do you want a hand?” said I, anxiously. He made a funny little sound something like a pony’s whinny, then answered, “Wall, I should surmise that I want between fifty and sixty hands, ef yew kin lay me onto ’em; but, kem along, every dreep’s a drop, an’ yew seem likely enough.” With that he turned and led the way until we reached a building around which were gathered one of the most nondescript crowds I had ever seen. There certainly did not appear to be a sailor among them.
Bullen was right about the lack of sailors among the would-be crew: farmers, bakers, and draymen ship out with the Portuguese Canary Islanders already aboard. Bullen was a sailor however, and soon won the approval of the black fourth-mate. The Cachalot (or “big head,” another term for “sperm whale”) got under way quickly so that the men could not jump ship and swim for shore — whalers were considered a “sailor’s horror.” Bullen would remain aboard for three years, never quite sure where the captain might be taking them in the chase. They ended up circumnavigating the globe.
These would be the last days for this kind of whaling and Bullen was anxious to give a complete account of life aboard a whaling ship, with accurate and vivid descriptions of chasing, catching, and preparing a sperm whale:
In this optimistic mood, then, I gaily flung myself into my place in the mate’s boat one morning, as we were departing in chase of a magnificent cachalot that had been raised just after breakfast…He had just settled down for a moment, when, glancing over the gunwale, I saw his tail, like a vast shadow, sweeping away from us towards the second mate, who was laying off the other side of him. Before I had time to think, the mighty mass of gristle leapt into the sunshine, curved back from us like a huge bow. Then with a roar it came at us, released from its tension of Heaven knows how many tons. Full on the broadside it struck us, sending every soul but me flying out of the wreckage as if fired from catapults. I did not go because my foot was jammed somehow in the well of the boat, but the wrench nearly pulled my thigh-bone out of its socket. I had hardly released my foot, when, towering above me, came the colossal head of the great creature, as he ploughed through the bundle of debris that had just been a boat. There was an appalling roar of water in my ears, and darkness that might be felt all around. Yet, in the midst of it all, one thought predominated as clearly as if I had been turning it over in my mind in the quiet of my bunk aboard — “What if he should swallow me?”
The ship’s first captain was a grim despot, the crew inexperienced, and the weather unpredictable: storms aboard ship as well as storms at sea were plentiful. Some of the ports they entered were friendly, but others were decidedly not; the men almost lost their whale to Chinese pirates in the Hong Kong harbor. Bullen himself becomes fourth mate under tragic circumstances. But they visit idyllic ports as well, and with a change of captains the ship life improves noticeably.
Bullen tells a tale that can’t be beat for an authentic voice, one of great human as well as historical interest. “Sailor Jack” or not, you’ll find this graphic story captivating.