Perhaps a very little thought will now enable you to account for those repeated whaling disasters—some few of which are casually chronicled—of this man or that man being taken out of the boat by the line, and lost. For, when the line is darting out, to be seated then in the boat, is like being seated in the midst of the manifold whizzings of a steam-engine in full play, when every flying beam, and shaft, and wheel, is grazing you. It is worse; for you cannot sit motionless in the heart of these perils, because the boat is rocking like a cradle, and you are pitched one way and the other, without the slightest warning; and only by a certain self-adjusting buoyancy and simultaneousness of volition and action, can you escape being made a Mazeppa of, and run away with where the all-seeing sun himself could never pierce you out.
Again: as the profound calm which only apparently precedes and prophesies of the storm, is perhaps more awful than the storm itself; for, indeed, the calm is but the wrapper and envelope of the storm; and contains it in itself, as the seemingly harmless rifle holds the fatal powder, and the ball, and the explosion; so the graceful repose of the line, as it silently serpentines about the oarsmen before being brought into actual play — this is a thing which carries more of true terror than any other aspect of this dangerous affair. But why say more? All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.
Melville spends quite a bit of time, indeed dedicating the entirety of Chapter 60, to the uses and dangers of the whale line. The coiled line is attached to the harpoon, and when successfully planted in the back of a whale, is meant to be paid out, held, or hauled in dependent on the reaction of the stricken whale. This chapter appears somewhat superfluous until the very climax of the book, when the intricacies of the whale line are made suddenly explicit in a shocking passage. In our game, several Whale cards were needed to delineate the states of ‘Fast’ and ‘Unfast’ in terms of their effect on the player. Snagged Line provided a perfect opportunity for a card to be much worse when a player is Fast. Presumably, a snag in the whale line before it has been paid out of a boat could be readily dealt with, but if a boat is Fast, the line is a dangerous, whipping, almost living thing, and must be handled with extremest care.
Original Image Courtesy of The New Bedford Whaling Museum.