Our narrator, Ishmael, has just been plucked from the water after spending a harrowing night lost in a gale, shivering in a swamped whaleboat along with the others in boatheader Starbuck's boat, including harpooneer / boatsteerer Queequeq. The Pequod ran right over the lost boat the following morning in a grey pea-soup fog, but luckily all hands were saved. This was Ishmael's initiation into the joys of whaling -- his first time in a whaleboat -- and nearly given up for lost after being swamped by a sperm whale. He decides to laugh it off, but after interviewing some experienced hands, he decides he'd better write his last will and testament.
"Queequeg," said Ishmael, when they had dragged him, the last man, to the deck; "Queequeg, my friend, does this sort of thing often happen?" Without much emotion, Queequeg allowed as how such things often do happen in the whaling game.
"Mr. Stubb, I have heard you say that of all the whalemen you have ever met, our chief mate, Mr. Starbuck, is by far the most careful and prudent. Am I to suppose then, that going plump on a flying whale with your sail set -- in a foggy squall -- that this is being careful and prudent?"
"Why certain!" answered Stubb. "I myself have lowered for whales from a leaking ship in a gale off Cape Horn."
"Mr. Flask, you are experienced in these things, and I am not. Is it a law in this fishery, Mr. Flask, for an oarsman to break his own back pulling himself back-foremost into death's jaws?"
"Yes, that's the law. I'd like to see a crew backing water, face-foremost, up to a whale! Ha, ha!"
On this testimony from three "impartial witnesses" Ishmael considers the case closed: "Considering that at the superbly critical instant of going on to the whale, I must resign my life into the hands of him who steered the boat; and considering that the particular disaster to our own particular boat was due to Starbuck's driving on to his whale in the teeth of a squall; and considering that Starbuck, notwithstanding, was famous for his great cautiousness as a boatheader; and considering that I belonged to this uncommonly prudent Starbuck's boat; and finally, considering in what a devil's chase after a terrible White Whale I was implicated -- taking all things together, I say, I thought I might as well go below and make a rough draft of my will. Queequeg, come along; you shall be my lawyer, executor, and legatee."
Melville then volunteers that as far as tinkering with last wills and testaments, there are no people in the world more fond than sailors of that diversion.
Ishmael concludes resignedly, "Now then, here goes for a cool, collected dive at death and destruction, and the devil fetch the hindmost."