“How much more natural, I say, that … 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… 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.”
~Herman Melville, Moby Dick, “The Gam”
It was two days later that I heard my first cry of “sail ho!” from the mast-top. I wasn’t sure whether I should be surprised that we hadn’t yet encountered any other ships, or whether I should be amazed that any two ships ever crossed paths on this seemingly endless expanse of water. Even more amazing to think they might know each other.
But know each other they did.
Obadiah had his telescope trained on her from the moment the lookout called out, ensuring that she wasn’t armed or unfriendly. An unknown gunship out here would get a wide berth. But no—he quickly ascertained that the approaching vessel bore arms like ours: harpoons and lances.
“I’ll be damned,” he muttered, and I wasn’t sure if he were talking to me (hovering at his elbow and hoping for a turn with the scope) or to himself. “It’s Blue Mary.” He squinted through the glass for several more minutes as if to confirm his ID, or to assess her condition, before handing me the brass cylinder and flagging down the older cabin boy, Peter Coffin.
“Haul up the mail bag, boy—we’ll be having a gam. Mr. Dickson, fall off two points—hold a course to intersect.”
“Is she from New Bedford?” I asked him, trying to keep my circle of view trained on the tiny ship on its bouncing horizon. It’s harder than you’d think to look through a telescope at sea. “Do you know her captain?”
“She is, and I do. She’s been out nearly four years, and little enough heard from her. Maybe not surprising—her captain is a lonesome sort, not given to gamming for the mere sake of mail. You’ll notice he’s not changed his course, though they’ll have seen us by now. We don’t have any news he needs.”
“Will he stop, then?”
“Aye, he’ll heave to in the end. He’ll just make me come to him.”
I bristled at that, offended on Obadiah’s behalf. “He can’t possibly have mail for us—is he worth the trouble if he’s so unsociable?”
“Oh aye. he’ll have news of the whaling grounds. And he’s my brother.” I gaped at him in surprise, torn between laughing and rolling my eyes. Maybe it’s my only-child wistfulness, but I can’t help but think that if I did have a sister, and if I did happen to randomly cross paths with her in the middle of a huge ocean, that the staggering coincidence would be the first thing out of my mouth, before her ship’s name, her social habits, and her usefulness.
The Blue Mary did eventually shift her course slightly, looking resigned and reluctant to my eyes, but that was probably just Obadiah’s commentary working on my perceptions. I wondered if her change of course were a concession to familial relations—by his own account he hadn’t seen his brother on land for a long count of years, though he said they’d “gammed” once on the Pacific whaling grounds.
Perhaps the coincidence was less staggering than it seemed. The ocean may not have literal roads, but the Nantucket and New Bedford whalers did share common courses across her surface, like this run between New England and the Azores.
I assumed, given the other Starbuck’s unsociable leanings, that we’d be making the whaleboat-jaunt over to his rig, but before the Blue Mary even hove to, we could see the small craft lowering down her starboard side from the davits.
“Is he coming over to us?”
“Aye, he prefers it that way. He can leave when he wants, instead of chasing a chatty chief off his own deck.” He looked me over and sighed. “May I at least introduce a woman to my brother?” Privately noting that his request signaled some resignation to my trousers as daily wear, I sketched a playful curtsey, spreading imaginary skirts, and took myself off to make a quick change. I didn’t want to miss anything, so it was a thrown-together hybrid outfit at best. I pulled petticoat and skirt right over the trousers, tucking in the sailor’s shirt I already wore, and added Obadiah’s shawl for good measure. With one of Mrs. Vanderhagen’s blue neckerchiefs tied around my hair headband-fashion, I scrambled back up the hatch with as much alacrity as I could manage amidst all the hindering fabric.
I couldn’t say what I’d expected, but this man wasn’t it. A full foot shorter than his brother, Micah Starbuck was clearly a dandy. Here he was at the end of a many-years’ whaling voyage, wearing a clean white shirt with ruffles at the front and wrists. In calf-high black leather boots snug-fitting breeches, and several gold earrings, he would have looked more in place on the set of a swashbuckling movie-set than he did among the plain togs of our crew. I thought he’d missed his pirate-calling, perhaps missed his century. I also thought he’d probably brought more trunks of clothes than I had. He wore his dark hair slicked back (with whale oil, I guessed) and his swagger had little to do with the movement of the deck. In another century I would have expected a gold Rolex and a mafia Jersey accent.
I wondered what sort of greeting I had missed. Judging from the nearly tangible testosterone in the air, it might well have been forehead-butting.
“May I present my wife?”
I stepped forward holding out my hand, forgetting that women don’t shake hands, but Micah covered my gaffe by kissing it with a flourish.
“Well met, good-sister. I never thought to see my brother marry, and here I find him setting up house aboard his ship.” He looked at me appraisingly, and I found myself glad after all that I’d changed my clothes. To someone who so clearly valued appearance, I no doubt came up wanting, even in skirts—but at least the Mary’s boatmen wouldn’t be carrying tales back to New Bedford of a captain’s boy-wife in trousers. I suddenly appreciated some of the weight of Obadiah’s reliance on proprieties—he could lose effectiveness if he became an object of ridicule among seamen.
I didn’t really have an answer for Micah’s comment, but I wasn’t a main party to this meeting anyway. Obadiah dove right into questions about oil barrels and successes and trends on specific whaling grounds, maybe wanting to wring as much information as possible out of his brother before the bantam took it into his head to go abruptly haring off.
My attention focused on Peter with the mail bag, pawing through the various paper packets for anything with the “address” of Blue Mary. Several changed hands, Micah’s first mate collecting them to pass out to their intended recipients. One he shook his head over—“Lost him to yellow fever”—but he took the proffered letter nonetheless, perhaps to return to its sender. Several of our men brought forth letters of their own for the homebound ship. The mate shook his head over those as well. “You sending letters already, you either green or newly married,” he commented to Campbell the cooper—an apt observation, as Campbell was both.
Between the captains, Micah clearly held the trump cards of information, but among the men our crew had the monopoly. Mary’s men were eager for news of home and wives and families and town. If women gossip like hens, I want to know what gossips like a sailor at a gam. Hens have nothing on these guys. And it wasn’t all benign—one of Micah’s rowers was glowering at the news of a toddler at home. I wondered at his reaction until I remembered Obadiah saying they’d been out for four years. Our Coffin cabin boy, proud of his newly-minted “seaman” status, preened under the attention of an amused older cousin from the other ship, while Jimmy sulked nearby with no one to admire him. Watching the lively exchanges among the mingling men, I wondered about the majority left behind on Micah’s ship. His larger vessel held more whaleboats and more men than ours, and I wondered idly how these six got the lucky winning tickets to accompany him to the social event of the gam.
Almost before I knew it, a sharp command from the captains’ direction brought the visitors up short in their story-telling of whale encounters. They jumped for the rail without even wrapping up, and moments later the blue-painted whaleboat was shooting across the mild waves to the matching hull of its mother ship. Micah had taken no leave of me—I noted the lack of social grace but didn’t feel like I’d missed much. Before the smaller craft had even reached the Mary, her bow turned away from ours, her canvas billowed, and she began to move off, picking up speed even as the rowers raced toward her. I didn’t understand why she wouldn’t have waited for the boat to reach her first, but Obadiah growled, “Now he’s just showing off.”
“Showing off what, exactly?”
“That he’s got a crack crew of experienced hands. He knows I don’t have the crew experience or cohesion yet, and he’s rubbing it in.” We’d just seen the whaling version of peeling out in a showy convertible. “I’m just surprised they didn’t dance her in a circle around us while he talked—that would be just about his style.”
“Well, if it’s any consolation,” I told him, “I don’t think much of your brother’s style. Maybe they could have come home sooner if he used less of the whale oil on his hair.”