(NUMA Files – 8)
THE PACIFIC OCEAN, 1848
IN ALL HIS YEARS SAILING THE WORLD’S OCEANS, CAPTAIN Horatio Dobbs had never known the sea to be so barren. The captain paced the quarterdeck of the New Bedford whaling ship
Dobbs was considered a prince in the New Bedford whaling hierarchy. In the waterfront bars where hard-eyed harpooners gathered, or in the parlors of the rich Quaker shipowners on Johnny Cake Hill, it was said that Dobbs could sniff out a sperm whale at fifty miles. But only the rank smell of a simmering mutiny had filled the captain’s nostrils of late.
Dobbs had come to dread having to record each day of failure in the ship’s logbook. The entry he had penned in his log the night before summed up the troubles he faced. He had written:
Dobbs had a clear view of the length of the ship from the elevated quarterdeck, and he would have had to be blind not to see the averted gazes and the furtive glances from his crewmen. The ship’s officers had reported with alarm that the usual grumbling among the forecastle crew had become more frequent and vehement. The captain had instructed his mates to keep pistols ready and never to leave the deck unattended. No hand had yet been lifted in mutiny, but in the dark and dingy forecastle, the cramped living quarters located where the bow narrowed, men were heard to whisper that the ship’s luck might change if the captain were to meet with an accident.
Dobbs was six foot four and had a profile like a cliff. He was confident he could put down a mutiny, but that was the least of his worries. A captain who returned to port without a profitable cargo of oil had committed the unpardonable sin of costing the ship’s owners their investment. No crew worth its salt would ever ship out with him. Reputation, career, and fortune could rise or fall on a single voyage.
The longer a ship spent at sea, the greater the chance of failure. Supplies ran short. Scurvy and disease became more likely. The ship’s physical condition deteriorated and the crew lost its edge. Putting into port for repairs and supplies was risky. Men might jump ship to sign on to a more successful vessel.
The whaling expedition had gone downhill since the crisp autumn day when the gleaming new ship had pulled away from the bustling wharf to a roaring send-off. Dobbs was bewildered by the change in the ship’s fortunes. No ship could have been better prepared for its maiden voyage. The
But in the weeks that followed, the
Hoping to lift morale, the captain had urged the cook to play his fiddle at sunset every day, but the jolly music only seemed to highlight the sour mood aboard ship.
“I usually wait ’til sundown,” the cook said glumly.
“Not today, cook. See if you can fiddle up a whale.”
The cook put his cleaning rag aside and reluctantly unwrapped the cloth protecting his weather-beaten violin. Tucking the fiddle under his jowls, he took up the frayed bow and sawed away without tuning the instrument. He knew from their sullen looks that the crew thought his fiddling scared the whales away, and each time the cook played he feared, with good reason, that someone might toss him overboard. On top of that, he was down to two strings and his repertoire was limited, so he played the same songs the crew had heard a dozen times before.
As the cook sawed away, the captain ordered the first mate to take charge of the quarterdeck. He climbed down the narrow companionway to his cabin, tossed his weathered top hat onto his bunk, and sat down at his desk. He scanned his charts, but he had tried all the usual whaling grounds with nothing to show for his efforts. He sat back in his chair, closed his eyes, and let his chin drop to his chest. He had only dozed off for a few minutes before the wonderful words he hadn’t heard in months penetrated his veil of sleep.
The captain’s eyes snapped wide open, and he came out of his chair like a catapulted projectile, grabbed his hat, and vaulted up the ladder to the deck. He squinted against the bright sunlight at the main masthead a hundred feet above the deck. Three mast-heads were manned in two-hour shifts, with the lookouts standing inside iron hoops on small platforms.
“Where away?” the captain shouted to the mainmast lookout.
“Starboard quarter, sir.” The lookout pointed off the bow. “
A huge hammer-shaped head rose from the sea a quarter of a mile away and splashed down in an explosion of spray.
As the ship came slowly around, a second lookout shouted down from his perch.
Dobbs peered through his spyglass at a shiny gray back mounding from the sea. The spout was low and bushy, angled forward forty-five degrees. He moved the telescope to the right and then to the left.
The cook had stopped playing at the first sighting. He stood on the deck dumbfounded, his fiddle hanging limply at his side.
The cook gave the captain a gap-toothed grin and drew his bow across the violin strings, playing a jaunty sea chantey, as the helmsman brought the ship up into the wind. The sails were trimmed. The ship plowed to a stop.