In this chapter, Ishmael describes a difficult maneuver that he calls “pitchpoling,” which is used when a whaleboat has harpooned and is “fast” to a running whale but only insecurely, so that pulling on the line to draw the whaleboat close enough for the mate to lance the whale will result in the harpoon’s iron becoming dislodged. In such instances, a harpooneer can use a lance with a rope attached to it for “pitchpoling.” The lance is longer and lighter than the harpoon making it more suitable for this maneuver.
Stubb is chosen to make the attempt because of “his humorous, deliberate coolness and equanimity in the direst emergencies.” Here is Ishmael’s description of pitchpoling:
Look at him; he stands upright in the tossed bow of the flying boat; wrapt in fleecy foam, the towing whale is forty feet ahead. Handling the long lance lightly, glancing twice or thrice along its length to see if it be exactly straight, Stubb whistlingly gathers up the coil of the warp in one hand, so as to secure its free end in his grasp, leaving the rest unobstructed. Then holding the lance full before his waistband’s middle, he levels it at the whale; when, covering him with it, he steadily depresses the butt-end in his hand, thereby elevating the point till the weapon stands fairly balanced upon his palm, fifteen feet in the air. He minds you somewhat of a juggler, balancing a long staff on his chin. Next moment with a rapid, nameless impulse, in a superb lofty arch the bright steel spans the foaming distance, and quivers in the life spot of the whale.
The lance is then withdrawn using the rope and the maneuver is repeated as necessary until the whale has expired. Pitchpole; retrieve; repeat.
If you were to look up “pitchpoling” in a nautical dictionary, however, you’d find a rather different definition of the term:”To capsize end over end, as in heavy surf.” Usually, pitchpoling means that boat’s stern goes over its bow, as in this accident in San Francisco bay during training for an America’s Cup:
From what I can tell, many catamaran racers seem to think pitchpoling is fun. Stubb certainly seems to think his pitchpoling is fun. Why are their two meanings of the term? Beats me: almost of every reference to pitchpoling in the context of whaling leads one back to Moby-Dick. Further investigation is warranted.
“Pitchpoling” is read by Cynthia Walsh. The accompanying image is Hunting the Sperm Whale – in four parts; American Whaler Viola, 1916 by Provincetown, Mass. artist Jay Critchley.
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[Cross-posted with Patell and Waterman’s History of New York]