Whaler.jpg (25550 bytes) Whaler

A vessel used in the hunting of whales. The term "whaler" goes back many centuries, as the English sought the Greenland whale through the 16th century, and the Dutch were especially active in the industry as early as l600. The early Nantucket and New Bedford whalers were broad-bottomed, sturdy little vessels, carrying square topsails, which were trimmed by braces leading forward to cleats on the bowsprit. They were sometimes sloop-rigged and were usually manned by thirteen men, two crews of six men each for the boats and a cook, the latter taking care of the ship while the boats were away. In those early days the whales pursued were those found close to shore, and after they were killed, were towed ashore, and then cut up and the blubber boiled to extract the oil. Later, as the ships worked farther from shore, the blubber was stored in casks and then taken ashore.

As whaling operations were extended farther out to sea, larger vessels were built, and it became necessary to build "try-works" on board in which to boil the blubber. The industry was at a standstill during the Revolutionary War, but after peace was declared it got under way again and the "whalers" began to cruise around Cape Horn to the Pacific Ocean. It was there that the greatest activity in the whaling industry took place. A whaling voyage lasted from one to four years.

After the War of 1812 the whaling business entered its palmy days, continuing for over 50 years. The ships were stout, heavily-built, and had distinctive hull and deck designs. The average lengths of "whalers" were from l15 to 130 feet long, about one-fifth the beam, built with raking, convexly curved stem; bow moderately full above the water; straight vertical sternpost; heavy, square stern, often ornamented with scroll work; slight sheer, and long run. It was necessary to have an "easy cutting-in ship," one that was not too wide and flat on the floor, so that the ship would not pull too hard at the "cutting-in tackles" when a whale was being cut up for its blubber in a seaway.

A cabin on either side of the stern, with a covered passageway running between, served for the storage of whaling gear. The helmsman stood underneath the covered opening. The whaleboats, usually five in number (but two on the starboard side) were slung from wooden davits along the rail, and at the masthead, generally on the mainmast, was a crow's-nest, from which the lookout scanned the sea. At the mainmast head, two heavy blocks were slung, for the tackle used in supporting the whale when it was being cut up alongside the vessel. The cutting stage was located between the fore and after whaleboats on the starboard side.

A boat's crew consisted of six men. The officer of the boat, who was one of the mates, carried the title of "boat header"; the harpooner, a petty officer, whose rank was next to that of a mate and known as a "boat steerer," and four oarsmen. The "boat steerer" struck the whale with the harpoon and the officer usually killed it.

The "bark" rig was the favorite, although there were brigs, ships, etc.

Three kinds of whales were hunted. The deep-sea "sperm" whale, the oil from which was of a superior grade, and it also furnished spermaceti, from which candles were made. The second was the "right" whale, which yielded a cheaper oil, called train-oil, and whalebone. The latter forms a sieve, or strainer, in the mouth of the whale for the minute marine creatures on which it lives, its throat being very small. The third was the "bowhead," or Greenland right whale, found in Arctic waters, which also gave oil and whalebone.

On a successful voyage, a whaler of the size stated above would bring back between 5,000 and 6,000 barrels of whale oil, over 150 barrels of sperm oil, and over 60,000 pounds of whalebone. The Charles W. Morgan earned $ 2,000,000 in thirty seven voyages. Later the "whalers" were steamers or fast motor boats and the whales were harpooned with machine guns.

Return to Listing by Type