- Historic Sites
So the lookout’s cry resounded while Yankee whalers roamed the seas. Their perilous, arduous trade spanned three centuries
December 1960 | Volume 12, Issue 1
For sixty-five years after Captain Husscy’s important conquest, the New Engländers built up a highseas fleet and pushed outward into the open oceans. Even at the end of this period, however, their vessels were small, averaging no more than about ninety tons, cadi one manned by a crew of about fourteen and carrying one whaleboat. Large shoops were the craft most commonly used at that time, although a few larger vessels were employed. At the outbreak of the Revolution this fleet contained about 360 vessels.
Year by year the whalers pushed out farther and farther, the lead being taken largely by the men from Nantucket. They steered south past Cape Hattcras, crossing to the African coast and going down to the Cape of Good Hope. In their comparatively tiny vessels—the first whaler of more than 100 tons seems not to have been launched until 1^2, when Isaac Afyrick of Nantucket brought out a vessel of 118 tons—the whalemen got down to the extreme tip of South America, ventured into the Antarctic (“by way of experiment,” as a contemporary account remarks), and got around into the Pacific. The Revolutionary War almost eliminated the New England whaling licet, but it did not stop whaling. The rebound after the war was quick, and when the War of 1812 was out of the way, the business went ahead fast. In 1821, 132 whalers cleared the New England ports, and the number kept rising year by year, reaching its peak in 1846 with 736. Bigger vessels were used; the sloop gave way to brigs and to even larger ships, each one carrying from three to five whaleboats.
Many of these ships, of course, hunted the right and bowhead whales—the two are almost identical—but it was the sperm whale fishery that carried the most excitement and drew most of the attention. The sperm fishery followed a certain routine. There was an unwritten rule, for instance, that a whale, dead or alive, belonged to the particular boat that first struck it with its harpoon. There was intense rivalry between different ships, and often between the different boats from one ship, and when more than one ship sighted a whale an all-out race took place; rival harpooners were known to cast their murderous weapons over each other’s boats in the no-holds-barred scramble to take the prize first.
The excitement began when a masthead lookout spoiled the wispy plume of a surfaced whale’s spout off toward the horizon. His cry meant boats away—two boats, or three, or lour or five, depending on the size of the era It that was hunting. These boats were trim, double-ended craft, twenty-five or thirty feel in length, light in weight and construction, built to ride the waves easily. An officer—one of the males, or even lhe captain—would go into the stern, to handle the long steering oar. Five men would man the oars to row, the one silling nearest the bow being the harpooner. In the bow were two harpoons, attached by short warps to the end of lhe whale line; lhe line ran through a elect in the bow, lay in a loose coil there, and thence ran back to the stern, going around a stout post there and coming a little distance forward to the line tubs, where it lay in carefully arranged coils. Altogether, there might be 1,800 feet of line in the boat.
If the wind was favorable, the men would slep a mast and hoist a sail to get up near the whale. If it was not, lhey would row all lhe way. In cither case, when they ncared the whale the harpooner would bring his oar inboard and stand up in the extreme bow, harpoon in his hand, while the boat crept closer and closer under lhe quiet orders of the officer in the stern. (Too much noise might frighten the whale and cause it to “sound,” or dive; sometimes lhe crew laid aside their oars during this last stage of lhe approach and look up paddles, so as to be able to come up more quietly.)
The harpoon had a razor-sharp steel barb on a long shank mounted on the end of a stout ash pole, iron and pole together being about eight feet long. With this weapon poised, the harpooner waited for closc range. Since it was very hard to throw a harpoon any distance, dose range usually meant that the bow of the boat practically touched the side of the whale. The officer in lhe slern wotdd give a sharp order and the harpooner would drive his weapon home, burying the barbed head in the whale’s body. If there was time, he woidd seize the second harpoon and strike with it also; if there was not—if lhe whale went off too quickly —he woidd simply toss it overboard. In any case, the whale when struck either sounded with great speed or took off on the surface, the whale line snaking out alter it; and while this line ran out of the boat, the harpooner ran for the stern to take the steering oar while the ofRcer there went to the bow to be ready for the final operation with the lance. This was a very touchy moment, if there happened to be a snarl or a kink in the line, which would be whizzing out of the boat at a prodigious speed, one of these men might get entangled and jerked overboard to a speedy and watery death.
Not always did the whale run away. Sometimes it turned to fight, and then the boat and its whole crew could be in serious trouble. U the ponderous flukes, thrashing in the water with enormous force, struck the boat, the boat was usually smashed. A sperm whale might roll over, its powerful jaw sticking out at a right angle, reaching for boat or men, an extremely dangerous antagonist. A Long Island whaler once harpooned a right whale which sank the boat with its tail, struck two men and sent them to the bottom, and then hit the captain a blow that paralyzed his legs and eventually made him lose consciousness. An infuriated sperm whale could put up an even harder fight. Altogether it was a tricky business; not for nothing did the whalers adopt the slogan, “a dead whale or a stove boat.”