- 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
Usually, though, the whale took off for safety. If it dived, there was always the chance that it might go down too deeply, in which case the line had to be cut or cast adrift to keep the whaleboat from being pulled bodily under water, if it stayed on the surface and swam off at top speed, the boat’s crew got what they called “a Nantucket sleigh ride,” skittering along the surface, a turn of the rope around the snubbing post in the stern of the boat. When the line was pulled out fast, it would smoke from the heat of the friction, and someone with a bailer would throw water on it to keep it from smoldering.
Sooner or later the whale would tire and slacken s%jeed. Then all hands would tail onto the line and pull the boat up, hand over hand. Once again it was necessary to bring the bow up to the whale’s side, so that the officer could use the lance to kill the animal. The lance was a barbless spear twelve feet long, sharp iron mounted on a strong pole; it was up to the officer to drive this deeply into the whale’s body, probing with it—”churning,” as the expression was—to strike lungs or arteries so that the whale would bleed to death. This brought a new moment of danger, putting the whale into a desperate convulsion called the flurry, at which time it behooved the boat to keep at a safe distance. Finally the whale woidd expire, and it was necessary to get the carcass back to the ship.
If the crew’s luck was in, the ship could sail to within close range. It was not often easy to do ibis, since when the boats were away no more than three or four men would remain aboard the ship, and so small a force could not do much in the way of handling sail. More often than not the whale had to be towed to the ship—a backbreaking job, with limited manpower. One way or another, the whale was maneuvered to the starboard side of the ship. Now the real work could begin—the cutting-in, removing the whale’s blubber.
The whale was held alongside by a loose loop of chain around the “small”—the narrow tail, above the flukes—and by lines attached to its head. A rig consisting of a plank on long arms was lowered above the whale, so that men could stand on it while they wielded their spadelike cutting knives, which were attached to the ends of eighteen-foot poles.
The whale’s blubber was a blanket of oil-filled fibrous tissue, ranging from six inches to a foot in thickness, covering the creature’s whole body, and the men on the overhanging scaffold cut this in a continuous spiral strip, from head to tail. A hole was cut in the forward end of this strip, a heavy hook was inserted, with a rope leading aloft to a block and coming down to a winch on deck, and the blubber was pulled off in a long strip some three feet wide. At intervals, the strip would be cut, a new hole made, and the hook relocated, while the blubber already taken aboard would be cut into pieces—“blanket pieces,” they were called—and stowed temporarily in the blubber room in the between-decks. The process woidd go on until all of the blubber had been taken, after which the head would be cut off and hoisted aboard. If the whale was a right whale, the baleen would be removed, and the head would then be thrown overboard; with a sperm, the teeth were dug out (members of the crew prized them, lor carving), and a hole would be cut in the massive forehead so that the spermaceti could be extracted from the “tank.” What was left of the head was then discarded.
Now it was time to try out the oil. On the open deck were the whaler’s try works—huge metal vats like oversized soup kettles, mounted on top of a brickwork furnace. The fires beneath the pots were kindled, and the blanket pieces were cut into smaller sections and sliced like bacon—Bible leaves, these pieces were called—and then they were thrown into the try-pots so that the oil could be cooked out of them. The pieces left over after the oil had been boiled out were put into the furnaces to keep the Ores going. The oil that was obtained had to be skimmed, strained, cooled, and finally transferred to barrels, which were sealed and sent down into the hold.
It was a hot, odorous, and laborious business, not without dangers of its own. The oil itself was of course extremely inflammable, and if a sea was running there was always the chance that the oil in the try-pots might slop over, take fire, and burn ship and cargo and everyone aboard. An immense volume of greasy smoke went skyward, and from the moment the first pieces went into the try pots until the barreled oil went down into the hold, there was no rest for anyone. If stormy weather compelled the skipper to postpone the tryingout for a few days, the blubber stored between decks could generate a powerful odor of its own. Clifford W. Ashley, who made a trip on a whaler early in the twentieth century, recalled that the crew’s living quarters were bclow-decks and that the temperature there during a trying-out spell rose to an almost unendurable height: “The forecastle was a veritable hell.”
Not only was the boat’s crew in danger when a whale was harpooned and lanced; at times the ship itself was in peril. Ships were actually sent to the bottom by infuriated whales, the most famous case being that of the Nantucket whaler Essex .