We’ll admit it: this is a whole chapter about whaling line (like fishing line, but for whales). But it’s going somewhere interesting, we promise.
At first, nineteenth-century whalers used hemp rope infused with just a little bit of tar.
Recently, Ishmael informs us, they’ve started using Manilla rope, which is stronger but not as durable and, he adds, prettier. Hooray for aesthetically pleasing fishing equipment.
Whaling line is thin but strong – the whole rope can hold about three tons (more than many full-size SUVs).
The line is stored in the stern of the boat coiled in a tub. Whalers have to be very careful to coil their line with precision, because if it’s kinked or tangled it could kill someone as it plays out.
British whaling ships use two tubs together, while Americans use one. Ishmael explains that the British system is better because it makes everything fit more compactly in the boat.
Both ends of the line remain free, and the bottom end is tied in a loop and hangs over the side of the boat, for two reasons. First, if the whale takes the whole length of the line, then they can tie another boat’s line to the free-hanging loop. Second, if the rope were attached to the boat, the whale might be able to capsize it.
Things start getting symbolic: Ishmael tells us that before the boat is lowered from the ship to hunt a whale, the line is taken out of the tub and coiled intricately all around the boat – even across the handle of every oar and between the rowers.
When a harpoon actually strikes a whale and the line plays out, all the men are in the middle of a whizzing, wild rope. They can’t even sit still, because the boat is rocking crazily. It’s not really surprising that people get hurt this way.
Ishmael thinks that sitting in the boat with the line coiled all around, anticipating the hunt, is worse than actually doing the hunting.
After all, Ishmael, he muses:"[a]ll men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks" (60.9).