The New Bedford Whaling Museum's Moby-Dick Marathon is an annual non-stop reading of Herman Melville's literary masterpiece. The multi-day program of entertaining activities and events is presented every January. Admission to the Marathon is free.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Dangerous Work

While we're on the subject of the hardships sailors faced, I offer for your consideration Richard Henry Dana's description of sailors' work in cold weather, in Two Years before the Mast.  The whole passage is much too long to be quoted here.  I'll give you the snippet I remember best (from Ch. XXXI, emphasis added):
We gave a look aloft, and knew that our work was not done yet; and, sure enough, no sooner did the mate see that we were on deck, than—"Lay aloft there, four of you, and furl the top-gallant sails!" This called me again, and two of us went aloft, up the fore rigging, and two more up the main, upon the top-gallant yards.

The shrouds were now iced over, the sleet having formed a crust or cake round all the standing rigging, and on the weather side of the masts and yards. When we got upon the yard, my hands were so numb that I could not have cast off the knot of the gasket to have saved my life. We both lay over the yard for a few seconds, beating our hands upon the sail, until we started the blood into our fingers' ends, and at the next moment our hands were in a burning heat. My companion on the yard was a lad, who came out in the ship a weak, puny boy, from one of the Boston schools,—"no larger than a spritsail sheet knot," nor "heavier than a paper of lamp-black," and "not strong enough to haul a shad off a gridiron," but who was now "as long as a spare topmast, strong enough to knock down an ox, and hearty enough to eat him." We fisted the sail together, and after six or eight minutes of hard hauling and pulling and beating down the sail, which was as stiff as sheet iron, we managed to get it furled; and snugly furled it must be, for we knew the mate well enough to be certain that if it got adrift again, we should be called up from our watch below, at any hour of the night, to furl it.

TYBTM was published in 1840, some six years before Melville's first book, Typee, and nine years before Melville's first book-length portrayal of the merchant service, RedburnBy the time Melville was writing, Dana had already produced the ultimate reportorial expose of the sailor's life aboard shipThere was nothing more anyone could say in that line.  Nor did Melville try; Redburn is much more psychological than TYBTM, and much more atmospheric.  In Dana's book, you forget you're viewing the world through someone else's eyes; in Melville's, you can never escape his gray, drizzly mood suffusing everything. 

Suffering laborers at sea remind me of suffering laborers on land.  Before the invention of air brakes in the early 20th century, the railroad brakeman had to run along the tops of freight cars, summer and winter, to turn the brakes by hand.  Not a few unfortunate men fell between the cars and were mangled.  This webpage has evocative brakeman lore, to help us keep things in perspective.

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