Willits D. Ansel : The
Whaleboat from 1850 to 1870.
Ansel, Willits D.: The Whaleboat : A Study of Design, Construction, and Use from
1850 to 1970. Mystic Seaport Museum,
Mystic, Connecticut, c1978.
Towing the whaleship was sometimes a task for
whaleboats. These boats from the schooner ERA were also used as shelter
for the crew when the ship wintered in Hudson Bay.
A framework with canvas cover was built over each
[Caption: page 1]
The term "whaleboat" properly describes boats used for
hunting whales, although it has also been applied to other
boats having some similar features, generally sharp ends.
Whaleboats were used by the thousands aboard American
whaleships in the middle of the nineteenth century and, in
lesser numbers, aboard the vessels of other nations and at
shore stations around the world.
The whaleboat was a double-ended, light, open boat with a
length at that time of between twenty-seven and thirty-one
feet and a beam of slightly more than one-fifth the length.
It was pulled with oars and sailed. It was a fine sea boat,
not only well adapted to its function but also handsome.
Though there were variations in size, lines, and
construction, the general characteristics were well defined.
The whaleboat was once the most widespread of all small
In the late 1800s it was known in the Pacific in such widely
separated places as Easter Island, Tasmania, the Bonin
Islands, and the Aleutians.
In the Atlantic, it appeared in the north off Greenland, in
the Azores, the Grenadines, and south to Tristan da Cunha
and still farther south to Antarctica.
In the Indian Ocean it was seen in the Mozambique Channel,
Kerguelen Island, and Cocos.
It was used in the Arctic Ocean at Herschell Island on one
side and Spitzbergen on the other.
Whaleboats were seen in the most remote places in the
The last voyage of a whaleship that carried whaleboats was
in the 1920s.
At a few far-scattered places the boats continued to be used
for shore whaling, as at Tonga and Norfolk Island in the
Pacific and at Bequia and the Portuguese Islands in the
Two whaleboats are still maintained at Bequia, and whaling
continued on Pico and
In 1969 there was whaling at Fiji. Page 2
on remote islands the type survived for carrying cargo and
In the United States, where the whaleboat was carried to its
final stage of development and where the boats were built by the
thousands, very few remain outside of museums, although an
undetermined number survive in Alaska.
Much has been written in praise of whaleboats:
Their shape "ensures great swiftness as well as qualities of an
excellent seaboat." (1)
The boats were dry and rode "as gracefully as an albatross . . .
for lightness and form, for carrying capacity compared with its
weight and sea-going qualities, for speed and facility of
movement at the word of command, for the placing of men at the
best advantage in the exercise of their power, by the nicest
adaptation of the varying length of the oar to its position in
the boat, and lastly, for a simplicity of construction which
renders repairs practicable on board ships, the whaleboat is
simply as perfect as the combined skill" of generations of
boatbuilders could make it. (2)
As surf boats, whaleboats were "without rival, better than a
lifeboat which is a compromise because it has to carry a larger
number of people . . . The whaleboat was the best seaboat that
man could devise with no limits to size, weight, or model." (3)
A whaleboat type, locally called a longboat, was adapted on
Tristan da Cunha around 1886, after fifteen men were lost in a
The longboat coxswains consider their light, canvas-covered
boats fine surf boats. (4)
Howard Chapelle cites the whaleboat's reputation for good
performance under oars and sail under all conditions. (5)
Others noted their maneuverability and speed and, last but not
least, the cheapness of their construction.
Such praise was deserved.
However, the whaleboat was the product of compromises, too, and
was excelled in some functions by specialized boats.
There were faster pulling boats, such as certain ones used in
nineteenth-century smuggling in southern England, and certainly
some lifesaving boats were safer in surf or a breaking sea.
In terms of all-around performance, however, the whale-boat
rated very high.
The structural design of the whaleboat was well suited to its
function. Whaleboats were very lightly, though strongly built.
Lightness was necessary because they had to be hoisted aboard
the whaleship or launched and beached in the case of shore
A twenty-eight foot boat weighed about 1,000 pounds without men
The boat had to be strong because of the racking strains of
being towed by the whale or being lowered and raised in the
davits in all weather.
This successful combination of lightness and strength was a
The boats lowered and attacked whales in the open sea, and often
the pursuit and killing lasted hours.
Another achievement of the builders was a design that was
extremely seaworthy but still easily driven without the
exhaustion of the crew.
Around whaling ports the production of whaleboats was a minor
industry. In some shops they were built with incredible speed,
with standard parts and assembly line techniques.
The design itself was suited to fast construction: plank lines
were easy, stem and stern timbers were bent on the same form,
and frames were bent to the same curvature. Speed of building
was a matter of economics.
Simplicity and utility in rigging and fitting out were other
Though there was considerable variety, rigs were invariably
stripped to basics.
One sail plan and rig for a gaff main and jib with a total of
340 square feet of sail had no blocks
only one sheave in the entire rig.
Simplicity is another lesson of the whaleboat. While the boats were specialized for
the capture of whales, not all whaling was carried on under the
same conditions; hence boats varied in hull design and rig to
meet the differing conditions.
Arctic boats in the bowhead fishery were generally different
from those in the sperm fishery.
Boats used in shore whaling were often longer than those carried
Almost all reasonable sailing rigs were used.
Sail areas ranged from the diminutive sprit-sail of the shore
whalers of Long Island in the 1890s to the seemingly
overcanvassed boats found in the Azores today.
Variety in types of rigs included sloops with gaff,
leg-of-mutton, sprit, and lug sails.
Some used in naval service were ketch-rigged.
Whaleboat rigs reflect many experiments and adaptations to a
variety of conditions.
The emphasis in design was always on
whaling, but the boats were successfully put to many other uses
Whalemen used them like any other ship's boat for carrying
liberty parties, provisioning, and towing water casks out to the
ship. A certain Captain Bodfish once watered his vessel by
pulling two whaleboats up a river into fresh water, swamping
one, and towing it down and out to the ship with the other boat.
There he filled his tanks from the swamped boat.
The boats could tow the whaleship out of harbor and, if disaster
befell the ship, serve as lifeboats.
Among the longest and most harrowing voyages were those of the
Essex's boats, two of which sailed over two thousand miles after
their ship was stove in by a whale.
The greatest rescue was that of the crews of the ice-beset ships
in 1871: 1,200 people were saved without loss of life.
Some sailors used whaleboats as a means of deserting their ship,
a case in literature being Melville's Omoo.
Others besides men in whaling used
Traders south of the Line carried them for landing through the
Whaleboats built by Charles Beetle of New Bedford were ordered
by Perry, Greeley, and MacMillan for Arctic exploration, and one
lone voyager, a Captain Crapo, chose a modified whaleboat for an
early trans-Atlantic crossing.
In the early years of this century, when whaling was dying,
Charles Beetle sold reconditioned New Bedford whaleboats to
merchantmen for use as lifeboats, and also built smaller
whaleboat-like boats for lifeboats.
Why did the whaleboat not survive?
Reginald Hegarty's reasons are these:
Although for their size and
usefulness, whaleboats were the lightest, weakest, and
cheapest to build, they nevertheless were the most efficient
They were well-suited for their work or there would have been
many radical changes through the years.
These boats seemed to have attained their degree of perfection
very early in the history of New England whaling since they
remained practically unchanged for generations.
While they were perfect for whaling, they were almost useless
for anything else—too large for rowboats and, although fitted
with centerboards, which came into general use about 1850,
they were poor sailers close-hauled. One must remember that the
whaleboat, like the whaleship, was constructed for a specific
Undoubtedly, whaleboat influence is
reflected in surviving boats of some remote islands,
particularly where the boat must pass through surf and be
beached, but these boats will have their unique characteristics.
The Pitcairn Islander's longboat has some features in common
with the whaleboat, but
Page 4, Page 5
illustrations of whaling, circa 1850.]
it is considerably longer because of the need for
greater cargo capacity.
The native of Tristan da Cunha makes his boat of canvas,
and the Eskimo, who still has original whaleboats,
prefers his skin boat. (*)
The boats in Bequia, though they have the standard
whaleboat fittings, are far different in lines and hull
The whaleboat used as a work boat on Cocos Island in the
Indian Ocean retains many whaleboat features but has
developed its own peculiar characteristics.
The Azorean boat is the closest foreign survivor, though
it, too, has significant differences.
The whaleboat disappeared first in the country that did
so much to develop it. (**)
lt became extinct for practical reasons connected with a
The reasons for the boats' success in their day,
however, merit review.
Their success resulted from observing principles and
practices in design and construction that have
It is the purpose of this study to describe these
principles as they relate to function.
Though there are references and comparisons with foreign
and earlier whaleboats, the focus is on the American
whaleboat of the late nineteenth and early twentieth
I have included a brief survey of earlier development of
the whaleboat in Chapter 1.
Such background was made particularly
necessary by the death of Charles Batchelder, who had
long been gathering material for a comprehensive work on
the earlier history of the boats.
In collecting information for this study, written
sources were used and boats in a number of museums were
examined and their lines taken off.
Practical experience came from the building of
whaleboats of two designs and the testing of these boats
in the waters around Mystic, Connecticut.
Footnotes * The Alaskan
Eskimo's umiak is lighter, has greater capacity, is more
seaworthy in the chop found in the open water between
ice flows, is more easily repaired and, overturned on
shore, is more suitable as a shelter.
The whaleboat's only advantage is that it is faster
Information supplied in 1973 by J. R. Bockstoce, who has
used both whaleboats and umiaks.
** the name "whaleboat" was
sometimes applied to surf boats, as in Marblebead where
the Massachusetts Humane Society surf boat was
so-called, today the U.S. Navy's twenty-six-foot
double-ended, engine-powered boat carried aboard many
ships is called a whaleboat, though it has evolved far
from the ancestral type and is now fiberglass.
Endnotes. 1. Charles M. Scammon, The Marine Mammals of the
Northwestern Coast of North American and the American
Whale Fishery, rev. ed. (Riverside: Manessier
Publishing Co., 1969), p. 224.
2. William Davis, Nimrods of the Sea,
rev. ed. (North Quincy: The Christopher Publishing
House, 1972), pp. 157-58.
3. Clifford W. Ashley, The Yankee Whaler,
(Garden City: Halcyon House, 1942), p. 59.
4. Notes on the Tristan da Cunha
boats were provided by the island's administrator, J. I.
H. Fleming, in 1973.
5. Howard I. Chapelle, The National Watercraft
Collection, (Washington, D.C., Government
Printing Office, 1960), p. 262.
6. Reginald B. Hegarty, Birth of a Whaleship,
(New Bedford: Free Public Library of New Bedford, 1954),
OF THE WHALEBOAT TO 1870
The whaleboat is old.
It evolved gradually until by the 1870s it had become a
craft highly adapted to its primary task of hunting
This much is generally agreed upon, but there are
questions about its remote origins and the sources and
importance of the influences that affected its
Some believe that Americans or New Englanders were
primarily responsible for the boat's development.
The term "New Bedford whaleboat" implies a boat unique to
that whaling center.
While Americans and particularly the builders of the New
Bedford area made many contributions to the boats of the
1870s, Europeans long ago had whaleboats with many of the
features found in the ultimate boat of the nineteenth
In its use the boat was not restricted to men of any
single country, and in its development builders of a
number of countries appear to have made contributions over
a long period of time.
The origins of the whaleboat, (*) according to British
writers, are Norse. (1)
The ninth century Norwegians were the first Europeans to
have a record of whaling, and some boats of the Shetlands
and Norway still bear a marked resemblance to the
Basques or Viscayans were whaling off Greenland and
Iceland in the fifteenth century and, if they had not
developed a whaleboat independently, they would have had
opportunities to borrow the boats of the Norwegians.
A seal dated 1335 of Fuenterrabia, a town in the Basque
region of Spain, depicts a whaling scene.
Four men are
Footnote * Smythe, in writing of
the sixern, the six-oared boat of the Shetlands, points
out they were "not unlike the Dundee whaler." The
Norwegian Brevik Skill and Arenda vawl also have strong
resemblance to whaleboats.
These boats were nineteenth-century descendants of early
Chatterton states that the design of whaleboats can be
traced to early Viking craft
[Four men are]
shown in a double-ended, lapstrake boat with
strong sheer and raking ends.
One man is at the steering oar and another has
thrown the harpoon from the bow, while two men
pull at the oars.
The Seal (ca. 1335) of the town of Fuentearrabia in Basque region of Spain. The whaleboat is lapstrake, double-ended,
with a steering oar on the port side. Note the drogue on the whale line.
The Basques taught whaling to the Dutch and
English, and later to the Germans.
Writings of the early 1600s describe techniques of
whaling and equipment used which changed little in
the following centuries.
The whale was harpooned from the boat.
The line, of 300 fathoms, was the same length as
that used in New Bedford whaleboats three
was played from the boat; if the whale took all the line,
the end was passed to another boat, which bent on its
When the whale tired, the boat was pulled up alongside and
the whale was lanced.
The boat's crew was six men: "harpeneir," "steersman," and
The titles were to change, but the crew is the same number
carried in the New Bedford whaleboats. In the
New Bedford boat the "boatsteerer" darted the harpoon or
iron, and then went aft to steer the boat, while the mate,
the senior man in the boat, killed the whale.
The mate was sometimes known as the "boatheader."
Hakluyt, writing of whaling in 1575, says that there
should be five "pinnases" on each ship.
Purchas in 1613 refers to the boats as "shallops."
He notes that during the lancing, the whale "friskes and
strikes with his tayle so forcibly, that many times when
he hitteth a shallop bee split-teth her in pieces." (2)
By 1630, each whaleship carried at least three boats, and
some carried six or seven.
There is little information about the boats themselves,
but with the methods so developed and with the large
number of boats carried, it is reasonable to assume the
boats were a special type rather than ordinary ship's
boats fitted out for whale hunting.
The drawings of the boats in whaling scenes of
of little help in presenting realistic pictures.
An engraving of 1711 shows the Dutch boats used off
Greenland: they appear to be double-ended and steered with
The bows are painted white, a practice that continued into
Six men man the boat.
A British illustration of a scene in the 1720s clearly
shows single-banked oars and a steering oar.
The boats are double-ended and of lap-strake construction.
Bow and stern have great flare, making ends that are fine
at the waterline and full at the rail.
They have "bollards"—the "loggerhead" of later American
boats—and a Dutch description speaks of the necessity of
wetting the line, something no writer on whaling for the
next two centuries fails to mention.
He speaks of the extra line in the bow—the "voorganger" of
about five fathoms—which connected the harpoon to the
whale line. Such a length of line is still found coiled in
the warp boxes of Azorean whaleboats today to give slack
when the iron is darted.
Whaling by Europeans in America, except for an early Dutch
attempt on Delaware Bay, began before the middle of the
seventeenth century with the living out of blubber from
dead whales washed ashore on Long Island and the beaches
of New England.
Shore whaling followed.
The English colonists used Indian harpooners as the
English earlier had used Basques.
The boats used in American shore whaling were probably
small and light.
Henry Hall, writing of them in 1882, says they were
shallops "built after the fashion of ships' boats, but
sharper"—in short, the shallop was lengthened and made
He believed that by 1700 the boat had "reached nearly the
form it keeps today."
By the time of the Revolutionary War, he writes, it was a
large double-ender, famous lot its speed, lightness, and
Hall provides a cut of the profile of a whaleboat of 1789
that shows a double-ended boat quite similar to a boat of
one hundred years later except for a skeg and greater
He makes no mention of any possible influence of European
whaleboats on American boats. (3)
In 1725, Paul Dudley described the boats used in Nantucket
for shore whaling.
They were made of cedar planks, "clapboards," and were so
light two men could carry one. (4)
The boats were twenty feet long and carried six men: a
harpooner, four oarsmen, and the steersman. (*)
The boats "run very swift and by reason of their lightness
can be brought on and off (the whale) and so kept out of
The legend has persisted that New Bedford whaleboats
evolved from or were strongly influenced by American
Indian canoes. This was perhaps based on these common
features: lightness in construction, double-ended hulls,
flat floors, and little flare in the sections, the sides
having a uniform curve without the flatness of ships'
boats of the eighteenth century.
Also Indians were shore whaling and porpoise-hunting in
ocean canoes when the colonists arrived; this experience
led to their being employed later as harpooners.
It is known that Englishmen, beginning with George
Weymouth in 1603, were impressed with the speed of bark
canoes seen in Penobscot Bay, and while the English
colonists adapted the dugout as a means of transportation
in the Chesapeake, both the French and English used the
bark canoes in the fur trade in the Northwest.
Footnote * this statement, and others,
about the lightness of the boats led to the weighing of a
twenty-eight foot boat in 1960.
It weighed about 1,000 pounds.
The boat described by Dudley, though only twenty feet
long, must have been of very light construction.
It is possible that the colonists, who were familiar with
double-ended boats in Europe, and probably those used in
whaling, may have been inspired to build their boats with
thin planking and light "basket construction" after seeing
the canoes perform, but proving such influence is very
With respect to another native craft, the Eskimo umiak,
Chapelle warns against seeing whaleboat influence and vice
Despite the resemblance of this type of umiak to the
whaleboat, it is highly doubtful that its model was
influenced by the white man's boat.
In fact, it might just as well be claimed that since the
whaleboat appears to have been first employed in the early
Greenland whale fishery, the latter had been influenced by
the umiaks found in that area.
However, one might also point to the fact that the model
of an early European whaleboat is much like that of a
Viking boat, from which will be seen the danger in
accepting chance similarities in form or detail as
evidence of relationship, particularly when it is not
impossible that the similarities in use and their
requirements have produced similar boat types. ... (5)
The question of influence, either of Indian canoes upon
American whaleboats, or European whaleboats on American,
or even American whaleboats on European, later becomes
speculative, particularly because so little is known at
this time about the early American boats. (*)
There are references to American whaleboats in reports on
the colonial wars against the French in Canada—perhaps
some still lie on the lake bottoms with the bateaux found
on Lake Champlain by divers.
In the American Revolution they were used for raids along
the shores of Long Island Sound:
The whaleboats were
sharp at each end, the sheathing often not over half an
inch thick, and so light as to be easily carried on
men's shoulders either to be hid in the bushes or
relaunched in the South Bay. Some were
thirty-two feet long, and impelled by from eight to
twenty oars, and would shoot ahead of an ordinary boat
with great velocity, and leave their pursuers far
These were reported to carry fifteen or sixteen men with
equipment, which is far more than could be crammed into a
whaleboat of ordinary dimensions.
The term may then have been used in a broad sense for any
light, double-ended, open boat resembling the boat used
The record of English whaleboats is more complete.
An engraving published in 1754 in London shows boats with
fine ends and sharply raking bows and sterns which
resemble the boats of a century later.
The first actual lines were drawn by Fredrik Henrik
He shows a Greenland whaleboat or "pinace" of the 1760s,
twenty-four feet six inches long and five feet three
inches in beam. She is double-ended and the keel has a
The entrance is fuller than the run; the midships sections
are quite similar to boats of the late nineteenth century.
The construction of stem, stern post, keel, and knees
appears very heavy; steamed members in whaleboat
construction came later.
has a box in the bow, thwarts for six oarsmen, and cuddy boards
No bow chocks are visible.
Footnote * One view holds that the
whaleboat, as a distinct type of boat for a
specific service, was a unique American
development of 200 years.
It is my opinion that while Americans pioneered
sperm whaling and there were some differences in
the techniques and equipment, including boats, of
that fishery compared to the earlier Greenland
whaling, the similarities are more impressive than
illustrations of whaleboats,1882,1760,1805.]
of whaling, 1835.]
The next set of lines of a whaleboat was published by
David Steele in 1805.
This thirty-two foot nine inch boat is quite different
from Chapman's, showing a boat with a beam of only five
feet six inches and very slack bilges.
The depth is only eighteen and a half inches.
The keel has no rocker, in contrast to Chapman's lines.
She must have been last under oars, but does not appear to
have been a good boat for rough waters. (7)
Some British boats of this period had transom sterns.
An engraving in W. Scoresby (1820) shows a boat with a
small transom, and boats from Scotland continued to be
built with this feature.
The hansom in some whaleboats is worth noting, as the
double-ended hull is often considered the salient feature
of the whaleboat.
Scoresby provides the best description of the Greenland
boats used by the English.
They were fast under oars, maneuverable, light, safe, and
good sea boats.
They carried six or seven men and seven or eight hundred
pounds of gear.
"Fir-boards" one-half to three-quarters of an inch thick,
were used for planking.
He writes that they were carvel-built for ease of repairs,
though many illustrations appear to show lapstrake boats.
Length of the boats was twenty-three feet to twenty-eight
feet and beam five feet three inches to five feet nine
Greatest beam was forward of the center.
Bow and stern were sharp in profile and the stern had
The keel had a deeper portion in the middle to act as a
pivot in turning.
Scoresby also notes that boats and techniques in the
Greenland fishery were much the same as among the whale
fishermen of various other nationalities.
Information about American whaleboats from the 1830s on
comes through illustrations, descrip-
tions, bills for outfitting, and models.
From the illustrations, the boats used in sperm whaling in
the 1830s and 1840s were light, shallow, lapstrake,
double-ended boats with strong sheer and raking ends.
Forward they had bow chocks, warp box, and thigh board
with clumsy cleat.
There were five thwarts for the men pulling the long,
single-banked oars, three on the starboard and two on the
Aft was the cuddy board and loggerhead, which tended to
rake aft in earlier boats.
The steering oar was on the port side of the stern post
Judging from illustrations, there was general
similarity between whaleboats used by English, French, and
Americans except for the transom stern in some English
There are no accurate plans or lines of American boats
until those of William Hand, drawn in the 1890s.
No descriptions or illustrations prior to 1825 give
evidence of sails being used on whaleboats.
The first sails appear in illustrations of scenes in sperm
whaling by Americans.
Rudders, center-boards, lunged mast steps, and a variety
of rigs were quickly developed, and with the use of sails
came new techniques in attacking whales. (*)
Modifications in construction and hull form were made
between 1830 and 1860, with many of the innovations first
appearing in American whaleboats.
Batten seams, closer frame spacing, and the use of steamed
frames, thwart knees, and stem and stern posts were new
methods of construction.
The boats became beamier to make them stiffer under sail,
and on the average, they were longer.
Sheer was reduced, forward sections became
fuller, and in some the turn of the bilge became harder.
By the 1870s the whaleboat as used aboard whaleships had
reached its final development.
In the forty years left to traditional whaling the sailing
rig changed in style, but there were no substantial
modifications in the boats, their fittings, or equipment.
Footnotes * The early Spitzbergen and Greenland
whaling was carried on in near ice, and oars were the
safest and most practical.
Sperm whaling developed later in open water: sails were
first used in that fishery.
American whalers continued to use sails when their whaling
took them into the Arctic. **
The whaleboat has continued to develop in the hands of the
shore whalers of the Azores and Madeira, but is now quite
different in lines and construction from its ancestor, the
New Bedford boat.
Endnotes 1. Herbert Warrington Smythe, Mast and Sail in Europe and
Asia (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1906),
Edward Keble Chatterton, Whalers and Whaling (London: T. F.
Unwin, Ltd., 1925), p. 39.
Samuel B. D. Purchas,Hakluytus Post Humus or
Purchas His Pilgrimes (Glasgow: James MacLehose
& Son, 1907), vol. 8, p. 27.
3. Henry Hall, Report on the Shipbuilding
Industry of the United States, 1882, 10th Census,
vol. 8, p. 23.
4. The Hon. Paul Dudley, Chief
Justice of Massachusetts, An Essay upon the Natural History of Whales.
Transactions, Philosophical Society of London, vol. 3,
5. Edwin Tappan Adney and
Howard I. Chapelle, The
Bark Canoes and Shin Boats of
North America. (Washington: Government Printing
Office, 1964), pp. 187-88.
6. Henry Onderdonk, Jr., Revolutionary Incidents of
Queens County, 1846, p. 250.
7. David Steel, Elements and Practices of
Naval Architecture, (London: C. Whittingham,
1805), plate 31.
Thank you for the reminder.
Finished with Whaleboat (I think) and Sail Raiders almost completely
These will be at Nowra this week.