Ishmael defines "gam" and comments on the Pequod's first two gams of this voyage. The initial opportunity for communication with another ship is aborted when the captain of the Albatross drops his speaking trumpet in strong winds. The second ship, the Town-Ho, oddly features a crew that consists, primarily, of Polynesians. There is a long story behind this, and Ishmael delights in telling all the details.
We learn more about sailing customs of the time in these chapters. Of equal interest are the continuing insights into the characters of Ahab and Ishmael. But first we must understand the definition of a "gam."
In the chapter of that name, Ishmael explains that a gam is a "social meeting of two (or more) ships, generally on a cruising ground." The crews visit each other, the two captains on one ship and the chief mates on the other. Newspapers might be passed from the ship most recently in port. Likewise, the outward-bound vessel might have letters for some of the other ship's crew. In exchange, the ship longer at sea reports its sightings of whales. The area around the Cape of Good Hope is populated by more ships than any other similar region in the world, we are told, and the American whalers especially enjoy a good gam. An exception is Ahab who is interested only in the answer to one question: "Hast seen the White Whale?" The Pequod meets several other whalers on its journey halfway around the world; the monomaniacal Ahab has only the one interest in each. But he does allow a gam with the Town-Ho, which has seen the whale.
Ishmael enjoys repeating the Town-Ho's story just as he once told it, he says, to a group of "Spanish friends" at the Golden Inn at Lima, Peru. This allows two interesting insights regarding Ishmael. First, it offers further evidence that the narrator survives the novel; he lives to tell the tale of Moby-Dick as well as the story at the Golden Inn. In addition, we see in the Golden Inn an Ishmael who is much more mature, experienced, and sure of himself than the rookie whaling sailor who is on the Pequod.
The story itself is a yarn within a yarn, told within the framework of the novel, involving a crisis at sea for the Town-Ho. During its current journey, the ship sprung a leak. In an attempt to keep it afloat, the crew was driven unreasonably. Suddenly Moby Dick appeared. Being stalwart whaling men, the crew took after the White Whale but harvested only disaster. A nice touch in Ishmael's story telling occurs when Moby Dick rises to expose a bit of the red woolen shirt of one of his victims, stuck between the White Whale's teeth like a bit of tomato. Most of the crew survived the episode with the White Whale but abandoned ship and were replaced at a nearby island: thus the mostly Polynesian crew.
Albatross a large, web-footed bird found chiefly in the South Seas; a burden (see Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," 1798).
brace of dandies a pair of fops, men who pay too much attention to appearance.
ballast anything heavy carried in a ship to give stability.
fetid decaying, putrid, having a bad smell.