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Chapter 35: The Mast-Head.


It was during the more pleasant weather, that in due rotation with the
other seamen my first mast-head came round.

In most American whalemen the mast-heads are manned almost
simultaneously with the vessel's leaving her port; even though she may
have fifteen thousand miles, and more, to sail ere reaching her proper
cruising ground. And if, after a three, four, or five years' voyage
she is drawing nigh home with anything empty in her--say, an empty vial
even--then, her mast-heads are kept manned to the last; and not till her
skysail-poles sail in among the spires of the port, does she altogether
relinquish the hope of capturing one whale more.

Now, as the business of standing mast-heads, ashore or afloat, is a very
ancient and interesting one, let us in some measure expatiate here.
I take it, that the earliest standers of mast-heads were the old
Egyptians; because, in all my researches, I find none prior to them.
For though their progenitors, the builders of Babel, must doubtless, by
their tower, have intended to rear the loftiest mast-head in all Asia,
or Africa either; yet (ere the final truck was put to it) as that great
stone mast of theirs may be said to have gone by the board, in the dread
gale of God's wrath; therefore, we cannot give these Babel builders
priority over the Egyptians. And that the Egyptians were a nation of
mast-head standers, is an assertion based upon the general belief among
archaeologists, that the first pyramids were founded for astronomical
purposes: a theory singularly supported by the peculiar stair-like
formation of all four sides of those edifices; whereby, with prodigious
long upliftings of their legs, those old astronomers were wont to mount
to the apex, and sing out for new stars; even as the look-outs of a
modern ship sing out for a sail, or a whale just bearing in sight. In
Saint Stylites, the famous Christian hermit of old times, who built him
a lofty stone pillar in the desert and spent the whole latter portion of
his life on its summit, hoisting his food from the ground with a
tackle; in him we have a remarkable instance of a dauntless
stander-of-mast-heads; who was not to be driven from his place by fogs
or frosts, rain, hail, or sleet; but valiantly facing everything out to
the last, literally died at his post. Of modern standers-of-mast-heads
we have but a lifeless set; mere stone, iron, and bronze men; who,
though well capable of facing out a stiff gale, are still entirely
incompetent to the business of singing out upon discovering any strange
sight. There is Napoleon; who, upon the top of the column of Vendome,
stands with arms folded, some one hundred and fifty feet in the air;
careless, now, who rules the decks below; whether Louis Philippe, Louis
Blanc, or Louis the Devil. Great Washington, too, stands high aloft on
his towering main-mast in Baltimore, and like one of Hercules' pillars,
his column marks that point of human grandeur beyond which few mortals
will go. Admiral Nelson, also, on a capstan of gun-metal, stands his
mast-head in Trafalgar Square; and ever when most obscured by that
London smoke, token is yet given that a hidden hero is there; for
where there is smoke, must be fire. But neither great Washington, nor
Napoleon, nor Nelson, will answer a single hail from below, however
madly invoked to befriend by their counsels the distracted decks
upon which they gaze; however it may be surmised, that their spirits
penetrate through the thick haze of the future, and descry what shoals
and what rocks must be shunned.

It may seem unwarrantable to couple in any respect the mast-head
standers of the land with those of the sea; but that in truth it is
not so, is plainly evinced by an item for which Obed Macy, the sole
historian of Nantucket, stands accountable. The worthy Obed tells us,
that in the early times of the whale fishery, ere ships were regularly
launched in pursuit of the game, the people of that island erected lofty
spars along the sea-coast, to which the look-outs ascended by means
of nailed cleats, something as fowls go upstairs in a hen-house. A few
years ago this same plan was adopted by the Bay whalemen of New Zealand,
who, upon descrying the game, gave notice to the ready-manned boats nigh
the beach. But this custom has now become obsolete; turn we then to the
one proper mast-head, that of a whale-ship at sea. The three mast-heads
are kept manned from sun-rise to sun-set; the seamen taking their
regular turns (as at the helm), and relieving each other every two
hours. In the serene weather of the tropics it is exceedingly pleasant
the mast-head; nay, to a dreamy meditative man it is delightful. There
you stand, a hundred feet above the silent decks, striding along the
deep, as if the masts were gigantic stilts, while beneath you and
between your legs, as it were, swim the hugest monsters of the sea, even
as ships once sailed between the boots of the famous Colossus at old
Rhodes. There you stand, lost in the infinite series of the sea, with
nothing ruffled but the waves. The tranced ship indolently rolls; the
drowsy trade winds blow; everything resolves you into languor. For the
most part, in this tropic whaling life, a sublime uneventfulness invests
you; you hear no news; read no gazettes; extras with startling accounts
of commonplaces never delude you into unnecessary excitements; you hear
of no domestic afflictions; bankrupt securities; fall of stocks; are
never troubled with the thought of what you shall have for dinner--for
all your meals for three years and more are snugly stowed in casks, and
your bill of fare is immutable.

In one of those southern whalesmen, on a long three or four years'
voyage, as often happens, the sum of the various hours you spend at the
mast-head would amount to several entire months. And it is much to be
deplored that the place to which you devote so considerable a portion
of the whole term of your natural life, should be so sadly destitute
of anything approaching to a cosy inhabitiveness, or adapted to breed a
comfortable localness of feeling, such as pertains to a bed, a hammock,
a hearse, a sentry box, a pulpit, a coach, or any other of those small
and snug contrivances in which men temporarily isolate themselves. Your
most usual point of perch is the head of the t' gallant-mast, where you
stand upon two thin parallel sticks (almost peculiar to whalemen) called
the t' gallant cross-trees. Here, tossed about by the sea, the beginner
feels about as cosy as he would standing on a bull's horns. To be sure,
in cold weather you may carry your house aloft with you, in the shape of
a watch-coat; but properly speaking the thickest watch-coat is no more
of a house than the unclad body; for as the soul is glued inside of its
fleshy tabernacle, and cannot freely move about in it, nor even move out
of it, without running great risk of perishing (like an ignorant pilgrim
crossing the snowy Alps in winter); so a watch-coat is not so much of
a house as it is a mere envelope, or additional skin encasing you. You
cannot put a shelf or chest of drawers in your body, and no more can you
make a convenient closet of your watch-coat.

Concerning all this, it is much to be deplored that the mast-heads of a
southern whale ship are unprovided with those enviable little tents
or pulpits, called CROW'S-NESTS, in which the look-outs of a Greenland
whaler are protected from the inclement weather of the frozen seas. In
the fireside narrative of Captain Sleet, entitled "A Voyage among the
Icebergs, in quest of the Greenland Whale, and incidentally for the
re-discovery of the Lost Icelandic Colonies of Old Greenland;" in
this admirable volume, all standers of mast-heads are furnished with
a charmingly circumstantial account of the then recently invented
CROW'S-NEST of the Glacier, which was the name of Captain Sleet's good
craft. He called it the SLEET'S CROW'S-NEST, in honour of himself; he
being the original inventor and patentee, and free from all ridiculous
false delicacy, and holding that if we call our own children after our
own names (we fathers being the original inventors and patentees), so
likewise should we denominate after ourselves any other apparatus we
may beget. In shape, the Sleet's crow's-nest is something like a large
tierce or pipe; it is open above, however, where it is furnished with
a movable side-screen to keep to windward of your head in a hard gale.
Being fixed on the summit of the mast, you ascend into it through a
little trap-hatch in the bottom. On the after side, or side next the
stern of the ship, is a comfortable seat, with a locker underneath for
umbrellas, comforters, and coats. In front is a leather rack, in which
to keep your speaking trumpet, pipe, telescope, and other nautical
conveniences. When Captain Sleet in person stood his mast-head in this
crow's-nest of his, he tells us that he always had a rifle with him
(also fixed in the rack), together with a powder flask and shot, for
the purpose of popping off the stray narwhales, or vagrant sea unicorns
infesting those waters; for you cannot successfully shoot at them from
the deck owing to the resistance of the water, but to shoot down upon
them is a very different thing. Now, it was plainly a labor of love
for Captain Sleet to describe, as he does, all the little detailed
conveniences of his crow's-nest; but though he so enlarges upon many
of these, and though he treats us to a very scientific account of his
experiments in this crow's-nest, with a small compass he kept there for
the purpose of counteracting the errors resulting from what is called
the "local attraction" of all binnacle magnets; an error ascribable to
the horizontal vicinity of the iron in the ship's planks, and in the
Glacier's case, perhaps, to there having been so many broken-down
blacksmiths among her crew; I say, that though the Captain is very
discreet and scientific here, yet, for all his learned "binnacle
deviations," "azimuth compass observations," and "approximate errors,"
he knows very well, Captain Sleet, that he was not so much immersed
in those profound magnetic meditations, as to fail being attracted
occasionally towards that well replenished little case-bottle, so nicely
tucked in on one side of his crow's nest, within easy reach of his hand.
Though, upon the whole, I greatly admire and even love the brave, the
honest, and learned Captain; yet I take it very ill of him that he
should so utterly ignore that case-bottle, seeing what a faithful friend
and comforter it must have been, while with mittened fingers and hooded
head he was studying the mathematics aloft there in that bird's nest
within three or four perches of the pole.

But if we Southern whale-fishers are not so snugly housed aloft as
Captain Sleet and his Greenlandmen were; yet that disadvantage is
greatly counter-balanced by the widely contrasting serenity of those
seductive seas in which we South fishers mostly float. For one, I used
to lounge up the rigging very leisurely, resting in the top to have a
chat with Queequeg, or any one else off duty whom I might find there;
then ascending a little way further, and throwing a lazy leg over the
top-sail yard, take a preliminary view of the watery pastures, and so at
last mount to my ultimate destination.

Let me make a clean breast of it here, and frankly admit that I kept but
sorry guard. With the problem of the universe revolving in me, how
could I--being left completely to myself at such a thought-engendering
altitude--how could I but lightly hold my obligations to observe all
whale-ships' standing orders, "Keep your weather eye open, and sing out
every time."

And let me in this place movingly admonish you, ye ship-owners of
Nantucket! Beware of enlisting in your vigilant fisheries any lad with
lean brow and hollow eye; given to unseasonable meditativeness; and who
offers to ship with the Phaedon instead of Bowditch in his head. Beware
of such an one, I say; your whales must be seen before they can be
killed; and this sunken-eyed young Platonist will tow you ten wakes
round the world, and never make you one pint of sperm the richer. Nor
are these monitions at all unneeded. For nowadays, the whale-fishery
furnishes an asylum for many romantic, melancholy, and absent-minded
young men, disgusted with the carking cares of earth, and seeking
sentiment in tar and blubber. Childe Harold not unfrequently perches
himself upon the mast-head of some luckless disappointed whale-ship, and
in moody phrase ejaculates:--

"Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll! Ten thousand
blubber-hunters sweep over thee in vain."

Very often do the captains of such ships take those absent-minded
young philosophers to task, upbraiding them with not feeling sufficient
"interest" in the voyage; half-hinting that they are so hopelessly lost
to all honourable ambition, as that in their secret souls they would
rather not see whales than otherwise. But all in vain; those young
Platonists have a notion that their vision is imperfect; they are
short-sighted; what use, then, to strain the visual nerve? They have
left their opera-glasses at home.

"Why, thou monkey," said a harpooneer to one of these lads, "we've been
cruising now hard upon three years, and thou hast not raised a whale
yet. Whales are scarce as hen's teeth whenever thou art up here."
Perhaps they were; or perhaps there might have been shoals of them in
the far horizon; but lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of
vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending
cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity;
takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep,
blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every
strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every
dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him
the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by
continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs
away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like
Crammer's sprinkled Pantheistic ashes, forming at last a part of every
shore the round globe over.

There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a
gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from
the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye,
move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity
comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps,
at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you
drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise
for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!