SI Vault
John Huston
June 06, 1955
The director of the forthcoming movie 'Moby Dick' finds the great tradition of New England whalemen still alive among the courageous men of Madeira
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June 06, 1955

Harpoons Away!

The director of the forthcoming movie 'Moby Dick' finds the great tradition of New England whalemen still alive among the courageous men of Madeira

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In Cani�al Bay, Madeira, a dozen dead sperm whales lay at anchor. They were awaiting their turn to be winched up the slipway into the flensing yard of the try-works, where 28 barefooted, bloody-ankled whalemen should have been waiting to strip off their blubber. Right now, however, the whalemen had down-tooled. They were watching Senhor Gouveia, their company manager, crouching over the sights of the brand new 40-mm. cannon mounted in a powerboat.

He aimed at one of the whale carcasses, paused and fired. The harpoon hit its target with a smack and ricocheted. There was a loud cheer from above.

The cannon was reloaded, and the boat circled for another run. This time the harpoon missed altogether. There were louder cheers, tinged with irony.

At the third try the whalemen just laughed. Their laughter rang mockingly across the bay, and there was a lot more behind it than simple amusement. They had just seen their whole way of life threatened—and reprieved.

If the experiment with the automatic harpoon had succeeded, it would have meant for them new whaling methods, with diesels replacing oars, explosives instead of strong right arms. There were old voices to be heard in that laughter—the voices of whalemen long dead, echoing down the years from Nantucket and New Bedford. Whaling is a business. But it is sport and adventure, too, men in a personal duel with the great beasts of the water.

In a sense, these barefoot men of Cani�al are living history. They follow a tradition that elsewhere has vanished from the seas—open-boat whaling. Throughout the world, science and modern methods have revolutionized the search for whale oil into a thing of guns and steel, of fast steam catchers and factory ships. Nowhere now do six trusty whalemen still stalk the sperm in an open rowboat, the harpooner withholding his hand harpoon until the last minute—sometimes until the actual bump of "wood on black-skin." Nowhere, that is, except in the Azores and Madeira.

The whaleboats—there are four of them—are lined up on the "hard" with their equipment stowed shipshape and Bristol-fashion ready for the "whale sighted" signal. Were an old New England whaleman around today he would see boats that are longer than in his time, about 10 feet longer, and carvel—instead of clinker-built—that is to say, smooth-sided. But this last, he will realize, is an improvement, because sperm whales are sensitive to noise and these smooth sides must make less disturbance in the water.

Inside the boat he would feel at home. There is one more oar and one more thwart, but everything else is just where he left it one hundred years ago—the mast, mainsail and jib lying along the thwarts, the twin line tubs amidships containing 480 yards of neatly coiled whale line. There in the bow is the "clumsy cleat," identical to the one he used to brace his leg against when he was "darting the iron." And in the stern is the same old "loggerhead," the post round which the whale line runs when the boat is "fast" to a whale.

He moves up for'ard, touching things nostalgically. Three lances for killing the whale—the same. Six harpoons—the same. He draws one out. Imagine his astonishment. It is the trusty Temple's Gig, the single-flued harpoon invented by Lewis Temple, a New Bedford Negro, in 1848.

There, however, the similarity ends, because now the Portuguese are shore whalers. Where the home of Herman Melville's men was in the fo'c'sle, the Portuguese live in fishermen's cottages and grow their own vegetables and make their own wine. Nevertheless, theirs is a primitive existence on a lonely headland. Their pay averages out at 1,000 escudos per month—less than $30—the boatheaders top rate at $60. They work all hours—sometimes, when a big catch has to be flensed quickly, as long as 24 hours at a stretch.

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