Man Overboard

It was a beautiful, bounteous, blue day; the spangled sea calm and cool, and flatly stretching away, all round, to the horizon, like gold-beater’s skin hammered out to the extremest. Bobbing up and down in that sea, Pip’s ebon head showed like a head of cloves. No boat-knife was lifted when he fell so rapidly astern. Stubb’s inexorable back was turned upon him; and the whale was winged. In three minutes, a whole mile of shoreless ocean was between Pip and Stubb. Out from the centre of the sea, poor Pip turned his crisp, curling, black head to the sun, another lonely castaway, though the loftiest and the brightest.

   Now, in calm weather, to swim in the open ocean is as easy to the practised swimmer as to ride in a spring-carriage ashore. But the awful lonesomeness is intolerable. The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity, my God! who can tell it? Mark, how when sailors in a dead calm bathe in the open sea—mark how closely they hug their ship and only coast along her sides. 

—The Castaway 

Though the concept of a man going overboard in the South Seas doesn’t appear on its surface to be such a dangerous thing, the chaos of the hunt and the vast distances a stricken whale may run can easily end the life of a man left behind. Boats would range or be dragged by whales far out of sight of the ship, and may easily be lost in several directions at once. A man in the water may be left behind by both boat and ship, and drift alone in the great ocean.

In the case of poor Pip, who in the novel jumps from Stubb’s boat twice, both instances put his life at risk, and some would even argue, perhaps Pip himself, that the second time he jumps from the boat indeed does end his life, though he yet lives as a babbling prophet, called mad by his shipmates. The split-second choice Stubb makes on Pip’s first jump, to cut the line, saves the boy’s life and loses the whale. When poor Pip jumps a second time, he is left behind. What choice will you make when a sailor is in the water?

Original Image Courtesy of The New Bedford Whaling Museum.

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