In this chapter, the Pequod finally gets underway. It’s Christmas day, and it’s cold. The ship is covered in ice: “The long rows of teeth on the bulwarks glistened in the moonlight; and like the white ivory tusks of some huge elephant, vast curving icicles depended from the bows.” Peleg and Bildad are aboard making the final preparations. Peleg enjoins the sailors to work hard by giving them a kick in the pants — literally, as Ishmael discovers to his chagrin. Bildad is one of the island’s licensed pilots and he serves that role as the Pequod starts out to sea — probably, Ishmael surmises, to avoid paying the pilot’s fees to someone else.

We learn that the Pequod is set for a a voyage of three years, as Ishmael puts it, a “long and perilous a voyage — beyond both stormy Capes.” The industry that had begun in the 17th century with boats launched from the shores of New England, the whales towed back the same day and processed on shore. But the history of the whaling industry, as Ric Burns’s documentary Into the Deep dramatizes so well, can be seen as a cautionary tale about what happens when you base an industry on a finite natural resource. (Into the Deep makes interesting watching here in Abu Dhabi, where it can be seen as an allegory of the oil industry today. If projects like Masdar are any indication, however, the folks here in the Emirates seem to have figured out that it’s necessary to start thinking about the post-oil age now, while the oil is still abundant.) As Eric Jay Dolin puts it in the Burns documentary:

And one whale man decided to go offshore – to the offshore grounds, and suddenly discovered there were huge pods of sperm whales out there that could be taken advantage of.  So the whole whaling industry is sort of like a hopscotch, or punctuated equilibrium.  They find one space, they fish it out, and then they go to the next point of opportunity.  Which is what caused them to radiate outwards, and, ultimately, end up sailing the seven seas, literally, looking for whales.  It also caused the voyages to extend from a week, a month, a year – to up to four years was the average during the golden age.  And the all-time record was 11 years.  So whale men didn’t want to come back with an empty ship.  So they would stay out as long as they needed to, to find the whales and process enough to fill the hold with oil.  And as more and more whales were taken out of the ocean, just mathematics argued for them to go farther afield, and find new stocks to take advantage of.

In the course of the chapter we meet the three mates — Messrs. Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask — who will play a large role in the voyage to come. “Away with thee, friend Starbuck,” Bildad says to the first mate as the final preparations are being made, “and do our bidding.”

Bildad has no idea how difficult that command will be for Mr. Starbuck to obey as the voyage of the Pequod progresses.

“Merry Christmas” is read for us by Fran King. The delightful illustration, Moby-Dick at Breakfast, is by Matthew Benedict. It would make an equally good accompaniment for the earlier chapter called The Chapel” or for “Stubb’s Supper” which comes later in the voyage. Visit the “Big Reads” site to see a high resolution version.

[Cross-posted with Patell and Waterman’s History of New York]