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Ansel : whaleboats, 1850-1870 

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.

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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 boat.

[Caption: page 1]

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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 craft.
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 sea.

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 Atlantic.
Two whaleboats are still maintained at Bequia, and whaling continued on Pico and Bequia.
In 1969 there was whaling at Fiji.

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Elsewhere on remote islands the type survived for carrying cargo and passengers.

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 lifeboat.
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 whaling.
A twenty-eight foot boat weighed about 1,000 pounds without men or equipment.
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 noteworthy feature.
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 characteristics.
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

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and 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 aboard ship.
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 as well.
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 the boats.
Traders south of the Line carried them for landing through the surf.
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 ever built.
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 purpose. (6)

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

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[Four illustrations of whaling, circa 1850.]

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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 construction.
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 changing technology.
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 continuing importance.
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 century.
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.

* 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 under sail.
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.


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), pp. 135-36.

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Chapter 1

The whaleboat is old.
It evolved gradually until by the 1870s it had become a craft highly adapted to its primary task of hunting whales.
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 development.

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 century.
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 whaleboat.
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

* 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 Norse vessels.
Chatterton states that the design of whaleboats can be traced to early Viking craft

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[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 centuries later.
It was played from the boat; if the whale took all the line, the end was passed to another boat, which bent on its line.
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 four oarsmen.
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
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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 an oar.
The bows are painted white, a practice that continued into the 1800s.
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 narrower.
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 capacity.
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 freeboard.
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 danger."

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.

* 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.

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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 difficult.
With respect to another native craft, the Eskimo umiak, Chapelle warns against seeing whaleboat influence and vice versa:

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 behind. (6)

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 for whaling.
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 Chapman.
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 strong rocker.
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.
boat has a box in the bow, thwarts for six oarsmen, and cuddy boards aft.
No bow chocks are visible.

* 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 the differences.

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[Three illustrations of whaleboats,1882,1760,1805.]
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[Illustration of whaling, 1835.]

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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 inches.
Greatest beam was forward of the center.
Bow and stern were sharp in profile and the stern had greater rake.
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-

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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 port side.
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 boats.
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 be
came 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. (**

* 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.

1. Herbert Warrington Smythe, Mast and Sail in Europe and Asia (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1906), pp. 113-14.
Edward Keble Chatterton, Whalers and Whaling (London: T. F. Unwin, Ltd., 1925), p. 39.

2. 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, 1725.

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 adsorbed.
These will be at Nowra this week.
Sailing models : ancient & modern / by E. Keble Chatterton
Chatterton, E. Keble (Edward Keble), 1878-1944

Whalers and whaling / by E. Keble Chatterton
Chatterton, E. Keble (Edward Keble), 1878-1944
Old ship prints / by E. Keble Chatterton
Chatterton, E. Keble (Edward Keble), 1878-1944

Ansel, Willits D.:
The Whaleboat :
A Study of Design, Construction, and Use from 1850 to 1970.
Mystic Seaport Museum, Mystic, Connecticut, c1978.
home catalogue history references appendix

Geoff Cater (2015) : W. D. Ansel: The Whaleboat, 1850-1970.