A RUNAWAY WHALE
By Captain O. G. Fosdick
"Now, boys," said Captain Daniel, "draw your skiff up beside the
Greyhound, and I'll tell you a story of how I was once run
away with by a whale."
We boys did as we were bid, drawing the skiff well up clear of the
tideway. We clambered on board the Greyhound and, seating
ourselves or the transom, waited for Captain Daniel to begin.
Taking a match from his waistcoat pocket and lighting a long clay
pipe, he spoke:
Along in the fifties I was cabin-boy on the whaling-ship
Nimrod, Alarson Coffin, master. We were cruising on the
coast of Brazil when, one day, the lookout, stationed at the
masthead, reported a large school of sperm-whales off our lee-beam.
Captain Coffin, who had taken his spy-glass and gone aloft at the
first cry from the masthead, ordered the boats lowered. As the men
tumbled over one another to be first to reach the monsters, my
young heart danced within me, and our old black steward had to hold
me back, I was so anxious to go.
There was a gentle wind blowing, and the boats' crews, having
hoisted the sails, were fast leaving the ship.
Captain Coffin now ordered the men to get a spare boat from its
cranes over the quarter-deck and fit it with whaling implements.
There were only a few of us left on board for ship-keepers. We
quickly had the boat down from its cranes, and everything ready for
There were several other whalers off our weather beam, and as soon
as they noticed our boats in the water they squared their yards and
ran down across our stern. Captain Coffin had observed their
manoeuvres, and calling to the ship's cooper, he said, "Bangs, you
will have to take charge of the ship during my absence, for every
one of our boats is fastened to a whale, and the rest of the school
has become gallied, and I don't want those Nantucketers to get
there before our boats secure two whales apiece, at least."
Taking another look at the ships which had now crossed our wake, he
added, "Blast those Nantucketers! They can smell a sperm-whale five
miles to their leeward any time."
He had come down from the rigging, and ordered the head-sails
thrown back. The order was obeyed, and stepping to the ship's
waist, he placed his powerful shoulders against the whale-boat, and
said: "Now, boys, all shove together!"
As the ship rolled to the leeward, out through the gangway shot our
boat and landed safely in the water, and I after her; for you must
know, children, I was so anxious to see the boat launched properly
that as she struck the water I ran to the open gangway, and not
noticing the boat's warp, which the steward had taken the
precaution to fasten taut to the ship's rail, was struck by it and
They threw me a bight of rope from the ship, and I clambered back
on deck. Captain Coffin told me to go below and change my dripping
clothes, and then I could go in the boat with him and pull the
after oar. You may lay to it that I flew down those cabin stairs,
for if there was anything in the world I longed for, it was to get
a chance to see a sperm-whale killed.
As Captain Coffin stepped to the bow of the boat he ordered the
black steward to his place at the steering-oar. "Don't be afraid to
lay me right on to them, steward," said he. "Nothing but wood and
black skin will suit me to-day!"
We soon caught up with the other boat. The first and second
officers had each killed a whale, and were then engaged in buoying
a tub, with the Nimrod's name stamped upon it, to their
carcasses. The rest of the school had gone down, and the third and
fourth officers' crews were resting on their oars, waiting for the
attacked whales to break water again.
The other ships now had their boats in the water, and as Captain
Coffin saw them approach he called to his officers: "Don't let the
Nantucketers beat us! They are regular sharks after sperm-oil, but
we have four whales the best of them now. Every man here must
strike his fish to-day."
He had hardly finished his speech when, right beside our boat, an
old bull whale showed his nose out of the water and sent a blast of
hot air out of his spout-holes, which was blown back to us by the
As we felt the warm breath on our faces, each man checked his oar.
And right here, children, I want to correct a mistaken idea. Whales
don't spout water. It is their hot breath which, like the breath
from a horse's nostrils in winter, shows white against the sky and
looks like water.
The body of the whale which had broken water beside us bore many a
scar, and his back was all covered with barnacles.
"Now, boys, give way to your oars, and you, steward, lay me right
on to him!" spoke Captain Coffin, and as each man gave a steady
pull steward, with a skilful turn of the steering oar, brought the
head of the boat round, and the next instant her bow brought up
against the body of the whale. Captain Coffin's wish was fulfilled,
for, in whalemen's lore, we were "wood and black skin."
Instantly he plunged his harpoon into the monster's quivering
blubber, and with a dexterity that was wonderful in a man of his
size, he seized another and thrust it to the hilt beside the first.
"Stern all! stern all!" he cried, and, as we backed away from the
maddened whale, it turned and, with one sweep of its flukes, sent a
cataract of water over us that almost filled the boat, and drenched
us to the skin. It dived, then, and the whale line ran out of its
tub so rapidly that the loggerhead in the stern, around which was a
turn of the line, smoked like a chimney.
"Pour some water on that line!" cried the steward to the tub
oarsman. And as the man obeyed, the steward tightened the turn on
the rope, and the boat shot ahead like a race-horse.
Soon the whale slackened his speed and rode to the surface, and in
a few moments broke water off our starboard bow. Then Captain
Coffin ordered us to gather in the line and pull him up beside the
whale, and at the same time he took a long lance from its socket
and having braced himself firmly against the bow thwart, stood
What a moment of awe it was to me as I looked at the monster
angrily lashing the water with its fins and flukes! The next
instant we were beside the whale, and as it rolled on its side
Captain Coffin transfixed him with a thrust of his lance that
seemed to pierce his very vitals. The next moment the blood poured
in gallons from his spout-holes. Having slackened the line from the
boat, we rested on our oars at a safe distance and watched the
monster circling around in its dying fury.
During this time the rest of the boats had each secured another
whale. The crew in the third officer's boat appeared to be making
signals of distress, and Captain Coffin ordered us to cut loose
from our whale and go quickly to their assistance.
We saw as we drew near them that the gunwale and the two upper
streaks of their boat had been stove by their last whale, and the
officer was about to throw all the whaling implements overboard, in
order to lighten her, for the crew were desperately bailing out the
water, which was pouring in through the broken seams. She was fast
Captain Coffin at once ordered the men to get into our boat with
their implements, and taking the smashed boat in tow, we returned
to our own whale, which appeared to be fast dying.
The captain, after securing the end of the severed whale-line,
attached it to the line in the third officer's boat, and then told
me to get into the stoven boat, and remain by the whale, while he
carried the rescued crew to the ship.
As he left me he sang out, "Don't let those Nantucketers steal the
whale from you, boy, for I feel proud of my work to-day! That is
the largest whale I ever saw." Turning to the third officer, he
added, "And I killed it in the good old-fashioned hand-lance style,
and didn't touch the new-fangled bomb-gun that the owners put in
all our boats."
As the boats separated, I turned and watched the dying whale. It
was slowly swimming around in a large circle, and the blood was
just oozing from its spout-holes as it came to the surface to
The sun was about a handspike high from the horizon. There was
considerable water left in the boat, which, empty of men, now
floated high; so I took a bucket and busied myself in bailing it
out. After bailing awhile, I leaned back against the thwarts and
took another look at the whale. The creature was not dead yet, and
there did not seem to be any blood coming from its spout-holes. In
fact, it seemed to be spouting all right, and was not circling
around any more, but was swimming slowly ahead. What did it mean?
Could Captain Coffin have fastened me to the wrong whale? I asked
myself. I began to feel frightened, for all of a sudden the monster
began to beat the water again with its flukes, and the boat was
going at a faster rate of speed.
The sun had now reached the water's edge, and I could not see any
boat coming. What should I do if the whale turned on me? I looked
round for a knife to cut the whale-line, but could not find one.
The crew had taken all the knives with them. The whale had
disappeared, and the line was fast running out of its tub. Faster
and faster it ran, until, with a jerk, the end flew from the tub,
and I thought I was free.
But alas, no! for when the crew were being changed one of them had
fastened the small tub, which is used for a drag, in the end of the
line, and it was yanked under the bow thwart and jammed there.
The boat now shot ahead with furious speed. It was growing darker,
and I could scarcely make out the ship. In vain I looked for the
boat. Would it never come!
To add to my trouble, the rest of the whales had joined the old
bull, and were hoarsely spouting and leaping out of the water
all around me. In fact, there were whales everywhere, on both
sides of the boat, and down beneath it. I could dimly see their
greenish-white reflections as they swam just beneath the surface.
One old cow whale and her calf were close beside me, and as they
came up to spout I could feel the water from the splash of the
little one's flukes. As a boy on shipboard I had often longed for a
little whale to play with, but the desire had all left me now, for
I crouched down in the boat and covered my face with my hands.
Oh, if the captain would only come and take me out of that boat! I
would never go to sea again, I thought.
Suddenly the boat stopped with a jerk, and uncovering my face, I
saw a sight that made me scream with fright. Right in front of me
was a large sperm-whale's head, with its jaws wide open, and its
long row of white, glistening teeth shining from the phosphorescent
brightness of the water. With a snap its mouth closed, and it sank
out of sight, while I, falling on my knees, asked God to save me.
After that I felt better, and managed to crawl under the
stem-sheets for shelter, for I was chilled through. It was quite
dark, although the stars shone brightly. The whale seemed to have
got free, for the boat was idly rocking on the water.
In changing my cramped form to an upright position, my hand came
against a hard, round piece of iron. A feeling of security, of
advantage, of longing for battle ran through me as my hand rested
on the cold steel. It was one of the captain's bomb-guns, which was
so despised by him, but which might be the means of saving me from
an awful death. I pulled it from its socket, and fondled it in my
excitement and relief at finding some means of defence.
I found I was able to lift the gun to my shoulder, and my pulse
beat with renewed vigor as I raised the hammer and found the gun
was loaded. So great was my joy that I forgot for the moment the
terrible uncertainty of my position, and almost wished the whale
would come back. I did not feel so long, for the next instant the
boat began to move.
Again I heard the whales' spouting, and right abreast was a monster
swimming straight toward the boat. With an inward prayer to God, I
raised the gun to my shoulder, and the next instant, as the monster
thrust its head out of the water, I fired.
The recoil threw me against the side of the boat, where I lay,
partially stunned and unable to move. I was conscious enough,
however, to remember, and in silent, stupefied terror I awaited a
second onslaught from the enraged animal. I seemed to feel the
crunching of the boat's timbers in those awful jaws, and I must
have swooned in looking forward to my own terrible fate.
When I regained my senses, all was quiet around me. Off the side of
the boat, at some distance, a whale floated on the water. After
waiting a few moments, I ventured to crawl forward on the thwarts,
and found the whale-line was still attached to the bow. I went back
to the stern and sat on the after thwart, thinking of the gun. I
felt in the bottom of the boat for it, but could not find it. It
must have fallen overboard when I fell down.
As I was groping, I felt an object in the bottom of the boat that I
knew at once was the boat's lantern keg, which is kept in all
whale-boats. In it are flint, tinder, a lantern, candles, and
packed all around them are ship's biscuits. Instantly the memory of
our officers' instructions in reference to their use came to me.
Quickly taking the keg to the stern of the boat, I struck its end
against the loggerhead. It soon yielded to my pounding, and the
head fell out. How sweet the hard pilot-bread tasted! It brought to
my remembrance the water-keg which is also kept in a whale-boat.
I went to the midship thwart, and found the keg there, lashed
firmly beneath it. I loosened it and drank heartily. Then I took
the lantern and tinder from the keg, and striking the flint, I soon
had one of the candles lighted. I sat down on the after thwart and
held the light aloft till my arm ached.
Everything about me was made more weird by the gleam of the
lantern. The swish of the water as it rippled beneath the boat and
the screeching of sea-fowls that had now gathered around the
floating carcass set me to thinking of the ship, and I wondered if
they would see the light and come to my rescue. I did not know what
time it was, but judged it must he near midnight. I tried to call,
but my own voice frightened me—it sounded so strange; so once more
I relapsed into silence.
Suddenly something seemed to be the matter with the whale. I
thought I heard a sound like some one falling overboard. What could
it be? At that moment a black body shot out of the water right
beside the boat. It was followed by another and another. Soon I
learned what it was, for I had seen them before. They were sharks,
which, attracted by the dead whale, had come to feast on the
It made me shiver to see them rush at the monster, and tear big
mouthfuls of flesh from its side. I tied the lantern to the
loggerhead and crawled under the stern-sheets so as not to see
Now I was well-nigh exhausted, and began to feel drowsy. Sleep soon
overcame me, and testing my head against the boat's side, I lost
When I awoke I heard voices and recognized Captain Coffin, who had
me in his arms, while the boat's crew were pulling us to the
Nimrod. They had seen the lantern from the ship, and Captain
Coffin had come himself in the boat to rescue me.
My shot from the bomb-gun had killed the bull whale, and it had
also taught Captain Coffin two lessons: First, not to leave a whale
merely because it is spouting blood, for it is liable, as in the
present case, to clear its spouting, as its ruptured blood vessel
is drained, and like a wounded animal, to fight with renewed vigor;
second, not to despise the bomb-gun. Always use your bomb-gun on a
We solemnly told Captain Daniel that we would do so, and then we
bade him good night and went away from the Greyhound with
sea-pictures in our minds that can never go out of them as long as