Rowing News!

Spring Wave 2017

Mt. Abraham drives to the finish line towards their 2nd place finish in the Novice six-oar division
Vergennes rows to victory in “Jimmy D” in the Intermediate six-oar division

On Saturday May 20th  the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum held its annual spring youth rowing race at Button Bay State Park. On a clear, brisk, blustery, spring day one-hundred and sixty youth comprising 24 crews raced their hearts out. Crews from nine Chittenden and Addison County Schools as well as Connecticut, Maine and New York competed in two combined time heats totaling 1 ¾ miles.  LCMM has always ended youth races with a  final heat called the “mess-about” in which all the crews are mixed up randomly.  It is a unique opportunity to test rower’s ability to adapt and be flexible in a competitive environment. All of the six-oar boats used in this competition were built at LCMM in the youth boat building program. The four-oar boats were built by “Floating the Apple” in New York City and are on loan to LCMM.

Click here for full race results. 


Longboat Launch Day

The new rowing gig “Mad Martha” leaves the boat shop for the first time

On Thursday morning, May 25th,  we launched the seventeenth boat built by Champlain Longboats in partnership with the Diversified Occupations Program of the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center.

Nine students from three local schools worked at LCMM’s Boatshop since January to complete “Mad Martha,” who will soon depart to spend her

The Champlain Longboats boat builders with their new boat just before she touches the water for the first time

life with Massachusetts Bay Open Water Rowing in Duxbury, Massachusetts. Several other Champlain Longboats have also “gone abroad” – five to the Hull Lifesaving Museum, one to Gloucester Rowing Club, and one to the United States Navy USS Constitution rowing team.

LCMM currently maintains a fleet of 18 rowing boats on Lake Champlain that serves over 600 students and

“Golden Oak”, last year’s gig salutes “Mad Martha” on her maiden voyage

200 adults each season through school and community rowing programs throughout the Champlain Valley. In addition to a dozen Longboats built by students at LCMM, the Museum fleet now includes four boats from other schools and community groups in Vermont, and two “visitors” from Floating the Apple, a youth rowing program based in New York City.

Do Whalemen Get Blisters?

Do Whalemen Get Blisters?

Whaleboat-Practice-on-Lake-Champlain3I know I certainly am getting blisters, accompanying a crew from Lake Champlain Maritime Museum to row a brand-new whaleboat. We’re participating in a boat parade in New Bedford, MA to welcome home whaleshipCharles W. Morgan, built there in 1841. Charles W. Morgan is the last wooden whaleship in the world, and sails this year on her 38th voyage. We’ve been practicing our rowing, though you wouldn’t know it from the relaxed pose in that photo. I doubt we’re going to break any speed records…


Whaleboats on Lake Champlain?

Whaleboats don’t seem to belong in the Lake Champlain region, since we’re more nearly 200 miles from salt water, let alone the offshore whaling grounds. So it’s interesting that during the French & Indian War, the British fleet on Lake George contained sloops, scows, and “a good many whaleboats.”  According to British General Abercromby, there were as many as 135.

British troops advancing on the French at Fort Carillon brought more than 50 whaleboats from Lake George north to Lake Champlain in July 1759. While preparing to invade Canada, British troops sometimes entertained themselves with whaleboat races on the lake. Archaeologists have discovered 17th century bateaux at the bottoms of Lake George and Lake Champlain, but they have yet to locate a whaleboat in the vicinity.

Whale Oil Lights the Way

Whale oil, on the other hand, was common in the Champlain Valley. Whale oil burned evenly with a bright light, and was coveted to light homes, businesses, and even lighthouses. Lake Champlain’s earliest lighthouses (Juniper Island, Cumberland Head, and Split Rock), were built in the 1820s and 30s, at a time when most lighthouses in America were fueled by whale oil. It wasn’t long after that sperm whales had been hunted nearly to extinction. By 1855, the cost of whale oil quadrupled. The federal government tested various replacement fuels; by the 1880s, kerosene was the fuel of choice for lighthouses.

The Whaleboat and the WhaleWhaleboat-in-the-Arctic-New-Bedford-Whaling-Museum

The 19th century whaleboat was a double-ended, light, wooden boat that was rowed or sailed. It was gorgeous in design, and simplicity in function. The double-ended construction protected the boats from being pushed by following seas, and allowed the crew to quickly reverse direction to avoid a thrashing whale. Wait, did you say thrashing whales?  Not sure I would want to go head-to-head with a 63-ton sperm whale in the open ocean in a 27-foot-long open boat with five other guys, even if it was double-ended. Good grief.

When crew sighted a whale from the crow’s nest, four whaleboats were launched down the sides of the large whaleship. The crew consisted of a boat-sterer in the bow, four rowers, and a headsman in the stern. The boat-sterer carried harpoons and was the first to attack the whale. Silence was essential, since they approached the whale from behind and the harpoon had to be delivered from within a few yards. Once the harpoon pierced the animal, whalers called this being “made fast” to the whale.  The attack was then continued by the headsman using long, slender lances.

The moment the wounded whale disappeared, a flag was hoisted from the whaleboat: assistance was required from the ship. It was critical to attend to the whale-line.  If it became entangled as it paid out, the whaleboat would be drawn underwater by the whale. The line’s speed could be slowed by turns around a post fixed to the boat called a “bollard.” The friction was hot enough to create smoke and ignite the wood, so water was sluiced on the bollard to prevent fire.

The whale-line might run out in ten minutes, so the lines of a second or even a third boat would be attached. As much as 600-700 fathoms (3,600 to 4,200 feet) of line could be paid out for a single whale. It was not uncommon for the wounded whale to remain underwater for 40 minutes. Overall, it could take anywhere from 15 minutes to 50 hours to bring in a whale to the main ship.  After its capture, the gruesome process of flensing, or “cutting-in” commenced. This reduced the whale flesh into pieces, and from there, it was rendered into oil.

whalemen-wanted-new-bedford-whaling-museumThe Whalemen

The life of a whaleman was grueling and dangerous. Writes one of the harpooners aboard Charles W. Morganin 1853, it was “A rather slow way to get rich.” It might be months before a single whale was captured on a voyage, and the ship did not return until the hold was completely full of barrels of oil. Voyages lasted for years.

Whaleboats Today

Today, the mechanized slaughter of whales is not over. In fact, humans are far more efficient in the trade than ever before. But at the same time, there is a growing stewardship of these magestic creatures.International conservation efforts have gone a long way to help the many species return to healthier numbers. Responsible whale watching tours offer visitors a thrilling experience and heighten awareness. Ultimately, this fosters whale stewardship in future generations.

For now, I’ll content myself with rowing the whaleboat in the New Bedford harbor, reflecting on the men whose lives were entangled with this magestic mammal, and in supporting those that research and interpret whaling history for the rest of us.  I think the words of William Davis in Nimrods of the Sea close it best: “The whaleboat is simply as perfect as the combined skill of generations could make it.”

LCMM is grateful to those who share our passion for maritime tradition and stories, especiallyMystic Seaport (home of restored whaleship Charles W. Morgan) and the New Bedford Whaling Museum (check out their digitial collections for more of these historic images). High school students from Middlebury, VT’s Diversified Occupations Program joined LCMM’s professional boatbuilders in our Champlain Longboats Program for five months in 2014 to construct this whaleboat; didn’t they do a fantastic job?