Do Whalemen Get Blisters?
I 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 Whale
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.
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.
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?