Ishmael explains his survival. In Fedallah's absence, he had rowed with Ahab that last day. He was tossed from the boat and floated "on the margin of the ensuing scene" but within full sight of the action. By the time the vortex pulled him to its center, it had sufficiently subsided so that he was not sucked under. Suddenly Queequeg's coffin buoy shot up from the center of the fading vortex. Clinging to it for a day and a night, Ishmael finally was rescued by the Rachel, "that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan."
In the brief, poetic epilogue, Melville provides a practical solution to one of the early criticisms of the novel. The epilogue was added after the first British printing, which drew criticism because the story appeared to be told by a dead man.
The conclusion unites the themes of friendship and death, suggesting that it is Queequeg's love for his friend that saves Ishmael. Queequeg's coffin has served as a sea chest and the ship's life buoy. Now it turns from a symbol of death to a practical means of survival, even rebirth, for the narrator who is then rescued by the very ship that Ahab previously had refused to help.
"And I only am escaped alone to tell thee" a biblical reference to Job 1:17.