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Chapter 53: The Gam.


The ostensible reason why Ahab did not go on board of the whaler we had
spoken was this: the wind and sea betokened storms. But even had
this not been the case, he would not after all, perhaps, have boarded
her--judging by his subsequent conduct on similar occasions--if so it
had been that, by the process of hailing, he had obtained a negative
answer to the question he put. For, as it eventually turned out, he
cared not to consort, even for five minutes, with any stranger captain,
except he could contribute some of that information he so absorbingly
sought. But all this might remain inadequately estimated, were not
something said here of the peculiar usages of whaling-vessels when
meeting each other in foreign seas, and especially on a common

If two strangers crossing the Pine Barrens in New York State, or the
equally desolate Salisbury Plain in England; if casually encountering
each other in such inhospitable wilds, these twain, for the life of
them, cannot well avoid a mutual salutation; and stopping for a moment
to interchange the news; and, perhaps, sitting down for a while
and resting in concert: then, how much more natural that upon the
illimitable Pine Barrens and Salisbury Plains of the sea, two whaling
vessels descrying each other at the ends of the earth--off lone
Fanning's Island, or the far away King's Mills; how much more natural,
I say, that under such circumstances these ships should not only
interchange hails, but come into still closer, more friendly and
sociable contact. And especially would this seem to be a matter of
course, in the case of vessels owned in one seaport, and whose captains,
officers, and not a few of the men are personally known to each other;
and consequently, have all sorts of dear domestic things to talk about.

For the long absent ship, the outward-bounder, perhaps, has letters on
board; at any rate, she will be sure to let her have some papers of a
date a year or two later than the last one on her blurred and thumb-worn
files. And in return for that courtesy, the outward-bound ship would
receive the latest whaling intelligence from the cruising-ground to
which she may be destined, a thing of the utmost importance to her. And
in degree, all this will hold true concerning whaling vessels crossing
each other's track on the cruising-ground itself, even though they
are equally long absent from home. For one of them may have received a
transfer of letters from some third, and now far remote vessel; and
some of those letters may be for the people of the ship she now meets.
Besides, they would exchange the whaling news, and have an agreeable
chat. For not only would they meet with all the sympathies of sailors,
but likewise with all the peculiar congenialities arising from a common
pursuit and mutually shared privations and perils.

Nor would difference of country make any very essential difference;
that is, so long as both parties speak one language, as is the case
with Americans and English. Though, to be sure, from the small number of
English whalers, such meetings do not very often occur, and when they
do occur there is too apt to be a sort of shyness between them; for your
Englishman is rather reserved, and your Yankee, he does not fancy that
sort of thing in anybody but himself. Besides, the English whalers
sometimes affect a kind of metropolitan superiority over the American
whalers; regarding the long, lean Nantucketer, with his nondescript
provincialisms, as a sort of sea-peasant. But where this superiority
in the English whalemen does really consist, it would be hard to say,
seeing that the Yankees in one day, collectively, kill more whales than
all the English, collectively, in ten years. But this is a harmless
little foible in the English whale-hunters, which the Nantucketer does
not take much to heart; probably, because he knows that he has a few
foibles himself.

So, then, we see that of all ships separately sailing the sea, the
whalers have most reason to be sociable--and they are so. Whereas, some
merchant ships crossing each other's wake in the mid-Atlantic, will
oftentimes pass on without so much as a single word of recognition,
mutually cutting each other on the high seas, like a brace of dandies in
Broadway; and all the time indulging, perhaps, in finical criticism upon
each other's rig. As for Men-of-War, when they chance to meet at sea,
they first go through such a string of silly bowings and scrapings, such
a ducking of ensigns, that there does not seem to be much right-down
hearty good-will and brotherly love about it at all. As touching
Slave-ships meeting, why, they are in such a prodigious hurry, they run
away from each other as soon as possible. And as for Pirates, when they
chance to cross each other's cross-bones, the first hail is--"How many
skulls?"--the same way that whalers hail--"How many barrels?" And that
question once answered, pirates straightway steer apart, for they are
infernal villains on both sides, and don't like to see overmuch of each
other's villanous likenesses.

But look at the godly, honest, unostentatious, hospitable, sociable,
free-and-easy whaler! What does the whaler do when she meets another
whaler in any sort of decent weather? She has a "GAM," a thing so
utterly unknown to all other ships that they never heard of the name
even; and if by chance they should hear of it, they only grin at it, and
repeat gamesome stuff about "spouters" and "blubber-boilers," and such
like pretty exclamations. Why it is that all Merchant-seamen, and also
all Pirates and Man-of-War's men, and Slave-ship sailors, cherish such
a scornful feeling towards Whale-ships; this is a question it would be
hard to answer. Because, in the case of pirates, say, I should like to
know whether that profession of theirs has any peculiar glory about
it. It sometimes ends in uncommon elevation, indeed; but only at the
gallows. And besides, when a man is elevated in that odd fashion, he has
no proper foundation for his superior altitude. Hence, I conclude,
that in boasting himself to be high lifted above a whaleman, in that
assertion the pirate has no solid basis to stand on.

But what is a GAM? You might wear out your index-finger running up and
down the columns of dictionaries, and never find the word. Dr. Johnson
never attained to that erudition; Noah Webster's ark does not hold it.
Nevertheless, this same expressive word has now for many years been in
constant use among some fifteen thousand true born Yankees. Certainly,
it needs a definition, and should be incorporated into the Lexicon. With
that view, let me learnedly define it.


There is another little item about Gamming which must not be forgotten
here. All professions have their own little peculiarities of detail; so
has the whale fishery. In a pirate, man-of-war, or slave ship, when
the captain is rowed anywhere in his boat, he always sits in the stern
sheets on a comfortable, sometimes cushioned seat there, and often
steers himself with a pretty little milliner's tiller decorated with
gay cords and ribbons. But the whale-boat has no seat astern, no sofa of
that sort whatever, and no tiller at all. High times indeed, if whaling
captains were wheeled about the water on castors like gouty old aldermen
in patent chairs. And as for a tiller, the whale-boat never admits of
any such effeminacy; and therefore as in gamming a complete boat's crew
must leave the ship, and hence as the boat steerer or harpooneer is of
the number, that subordinate is the steersman upon the occasion, and
the captain, having no place to sit in, is pulled off to his visit
all standing like a pine tree. And often you will notice that being
conscious of the eyes of the whole visible world resting on him from
the sides of the two ships, this standing captain is all alive to the
importance of sustaining his dignity by maintaining his legs. Nor is
this any very easy matter; for in his rear is the immense projecting
steering oar hitting him now and then in the small of his back, the
after-oar reciprocating by rapping his knees in front. He is thus
completely wedged before and behind, and can only expand himself
sideways by settling down on his stretched legs; but a sudden, violent
pitch of the boat will often go far to topple him, because length of
foundation is nothing without corresponding breadth. Merely make a
spread angle of two poles, and you cannot stand them up. Then, again,
it would never do in plain sight of the world's riveted eyes, it would
never do, I say, for this straddling captain to be seen steadying
himself the slightest particle by catching hold of anything with
his hands; indeed, as token of his entire, buoyant self-command, he
generally carries his hands in his trowsers' pockets; but perhaps being
generally very large, heavy hands, he carries them there for ballast.
Nevertheless there have occurred instances, well authenticated ones too,
where the captain has been known for an uncommonly critical moment or
two, in a sudden squall say--to seize hold of the nearest oarsman's
hair, and hold on there like grim death.