I confess I didn’t know the meaning of “Nantucket sleigh ride” or its relationship to whaling before reading John Guare’s marvelous new play. Guare uses the phrase in a figurative sense: to mean a wild ride. His play is not about whaling! But the literal sense of “Nantucket sleigh ride” is also fascinating and worth some blog background: in 19th-century whaling slang a harpooned whale would sometimes drag a vessel full of whalers on a crazy desperate course as the animal thrashed and flailed trying to escape its captors.

I suspect my ignorance of the term derives from the fact that all of my scanty knowledge of whaling comes from Moby Dick. A quick graze through the novel yielded no sign of the phrasing. Nantucket, however, does figure in, at least early on. Among the pages of Extracts included before the story proper is this tidbit, from a speech Daniel Webster gave in the U.S. Senate, on the application for the Erection of a Breakwater at Nantucket, 1828: “Nantucket itself is a very striking and peculiar portion of the National interest. There is a population of eight or nine thousand persons, living here in the sea, adding largely every year to the National wealth by the boldest and most persevering industry.” 

Melville’s narrator, Ishmael, considers Nantucket the most enviable place to hop on board a whaler. At the beginning of Chapter II, Ishmael relates: “My mind was made up to sail in no other than a Nantucket craft, because there was a fine boisterous something about everything connected with that famous old island, which amazingly pleased me.”

If Melville shed no light on Guare’s title phrase, where else could I go for elucidation? Wikipedia? That site was no consolation. Its entry regarding the phrase informed me that I could have skipped consulting Melville in the first place: the term “is sometimes attributed” to the author, “but actually is not found in the text of his published works.”

Wikipedia did, however, tell me that the sleigh ride was extremely dangerous. The rope attached to the harpoon used to strike the whale would drag the whalers’ longboat along with it. The speed at which the ride occurred varied with the species. Humpbacks gave the fastest rides, and sperm whales, reaching speeds of 23 mph, dragged the longest. But fin and sei whales were the most dangerous: they would dive deepest, aiming to take the whalers with them. If the men succeeded in exhausting the animal, they would kill it and row it back to the ship. 

Around the turn of the twentieth century, the whaling industry began using factory ships, much larger than old-fashioned whalers and with extensive on-board facilities for processing the slaughter of whales. These ships armed themselves with harpoon guns, obviating the need for sailors to go out in longboats. The Nantucket sleigh ride came to an end. 

Except on the stage of LCT’s Mitzi E. Newhouse, thanks to John Guare.

Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com