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A Whaling Sketchbook
By Gordon Grant
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
THE last few days prior to a ship's departure on a whaling voyage witnessed great activity along the wharves of all whaling ports: New Bedford, Fairhaven, Nantucket, Sag Harbor, Salem, and New London, to note but a few in New England; in Dundee, Scotland, and Bergen in Norway.
With the prospect of a voyage lasting perhaps three years, no item of gear for the ship or provision for the crew was overlooked.
On sailing day, with everything checked off and stowed below, the crew came aboard, the owners, their wives, and the townspeople crowded the wharf to cheer them on their way and wish them "Greasy Luck."
THE work of the merchant ship sailor had but one object; to take the ship by the shortest route from port to port. The whaleman, on the other hand, in addition to his seamanship, was expert in the highly technical work of killing whales.
While the whaling skippers lacked the smartness of the clipper captains they were able, keen, and resourceful in emergencies that the merchant ship masters seldom, if ever, were called upon to face.
CHOOSING BOATS' CREWS
Soon after the ship was on her course the crew was mustered and divided into two watches—starboard and larboard—(the word "port" was not used in whaleships). This done, the boats' crews were chosen, consisting of an officer, harpooneer, and four men. The mates in turn took their pick of the men for their respective boats, subjected their choice to questions regarding former ships and experience, and an inspection of hands, feet, and muscular development—much like farmers at a cattle show.
The harpooneers were called "boatsteerers," which, to the landsman, is somewhat misleading.
The mate steered the boat until the harpooneer struck the whale. They thereupon changed places and the latter became "boatsteerer."
The boatsteerers ranked next to the officers,—were quartered aft, and had a separate mess.
A HARANGUE FROM THE CAPTAIN
THE watches and boats' crews chosen, the captain called for attention and delivered himself of a speech. The gist of his message did not vary much from that of all other whaling skippers and his delivery was more or less colourful according to his ability as an orator.
Running his eye from man to man, so that none escaped the implied meaning behind the glance, he would voice his thoughts substantially as follows:—"This ship is a whaler and we're out to kill whales. I tell you that now in case you might think you're aboard a yacht and came along for a picnic. I'm captain and these are my officers, and when an order is given I want to see some jumping. I don't want any loafers or grumblers. Loafers and grumblers only make trouble for themselves, and if any of you want trouble I'll see that you damned well get it. You'll get good food and all you need—so I don't want to hear any growling about that. I won't have any fighting or swearing. The sooner you fill the ship the sooner you'll get home:—and remember; there's only one captain aboard here and that's me. If anyone wants to dispute that I'll damned soon show him. That'll do——"
GETTING IN THE MAINSAIL
To THE watch, bending over the yard with nought between them and oblivion but a slender foot rope, this was no easy task even in a moderate wind. In a gale, with wet or frozen sails, the stowing of this huge expanse of thrashing canvas can be better imagined than described.CHAPTER 2
STOWING THE OUTER JIB
A TYPICAL BOW
HERE we have the bows of the barque "California" of New Bedford, built in the early eighteen forties.
Square-rigged whaling craft varied in size from two hundred and fifty to four hundred tons, seldom exceeding the latter figure.
Many were painted "frigate fashion" with black ports along the side—a relic of the days when merchant ships used this device to deceive pirates into the belief that they were heavily armed.
The whaler had a beauty peculiarly her own. She was rather a tubby little thing, but with much grace notwithstanding. She was held in supreme contempt by the officers and crews of her contemporaneous big sisters the flash clippers, who referred to her as "spouter" and "butcher shop."
A TYPICAL STERN
UNLIKE merchant ships, whalers had to keep their forward deck clear so that all space could be devoted to the "cutting in" and "trying out" of blubber.
The forward deck-house, characteristic of cargo carriers, which contained the gallery and crew's quarters, was moved far aft—half to starboard—half to larboard—with a deck overhead from which the quarter-boats were lowered.
The stern shown is that of "Lagoda," a half size model of which has been installed in the Whaling Museum in New Bedford.
THIS diagram shows the deck arrangement of "Lagoda" of New Bedford and was characteristic of all square-rigged whalers.
A—B—C—D—E—Boats hanging on the davits. Many ships did not swing a boat in the position of "B."
In their order the boats were named as follows:—"Bow"—"Starboard Bow"—"Waist"—"Larboard"—"Starboard." The latter was known as the captain's boat, though in later years the captain did not leave the ship.
The first mate had the larboard boat—second mate the waist—third mate the bow.
The senior boatsteerer took the starboard bow boat unless the ship carried a fourth mate.
F—Spare boats on the skids—or boat bridge.
G—The main hatch.
H—The try works.
J—The steering wheel.—To left of the wheel, the companion stairs to captain's quarters.
L—The "cutting-in" stage. At this point a section of the bulwarks was removed during cutting in.
M—The foc's'le hatch leading to crew's quarters below.
BOATS varied from 28 to 30 feet in length, with a beam of 5½ to 6 feet.
A—Bow showing the "chocks," a channel in the stem through which the whale line ran. This was fitted with a bronze roller—or lined with sheet lead.
Through a hole across the chocks a slender spindle of wood was inserted—to be easily broken should necessity arise.
This "chock pin" kept the line from jumping out of its groove,--and was, moreover, when worn in the buttonhole ashore, the badge of the whaleman who had killed his whale.
B—Main line tub—containing 225 fathoms of whale line.
C—Reserve tub—holding from 75 to 125 fathoms.
D—Loggerhead—a heavy snubbing post around which the whale line ran from the tub and thence forward to the bow.
F—Padded notch in the edge of the forward box into which the harpooneer braced his thigh when darting his irons.
Except when under sail the boat was propelled by five oars, and in order to balance the power from this unequal number, oars of different lengths were used.
G—Harpoon oar 16 feet long
H—Bow oar 17 "
I—Midship oar 18 "
J—Tub oar 17 "
K—After or stroke oar 16 " "
Except when under sail the boat was steered by means of an oar over twenty feet long.
The complete equipment of a boat included paddles, harpoons, lances, spades, mast and sail, water and bread kegs, lantern, flares and waifs, and other small gear.
A BOAT ON THE CRANES
THE whaleboat was so lightly constructed that had it been allowed to hang by the hoisting tackle or "falls," there was danger of it "hogging" or breaking its back.
To obviate this "supporters" were provided to sustain part of the weight. These "cranes" were hinged and were swung in when the boats were lowered.
After a boat was hoisted, the tubs were removed in order to further lighten her.
The tubs were kept on a rack abreast of the boat, inboard, and the preparatory order before lowering was "Get your tubs aboard."
Two spare boats were carried thus on the skids, and were brought into use when one or more of the others were "stove" or destroyed.
Under these spares were racks on which cutting spades and such gear were stowed.
This view is looking forward from the deck over the wheel.
THE purpose of the harpoon was not to kill the whale but to be a means of "getting fast" with the whale line.
The killing was done with the lance—a long shanked instrument with a small razor-sharp tip.
From earliest times the whaleman had endeavoured to fashion a harpoon that would not "draw" or pull out. Many variations had been tried of the solid head type of "iron," but they all gave way before the "toggle" iron, invented by a Negro named Lewis Temple in 1848.
The sketch shows only the principal types—and the large variety of bombs and bomb guns has been omitted; they savour too much of modern methods and wholesale slaughter.
A—Two flued iron.
B—Single flued iron.
C—Temple's toggle iron.
D—Modern toggle iron.
In the toggles a wooden match-like pin was inserted through the head of the harpoon to hold it straight. This broke as soon as pull was exerted on the line and the head turned as shown in fig. E.
F—An effective darting gun used against Right and Bowhead whales. A short gun barrel was mounted on the end of the pole. On one side of this was inserted a harpoon attached to the line. Reaching half way to the point was a rod, which on coming in contact with the skin of the whale, exploded the charge in the chamber and discharged a bomb. The whole instrument was thrown in the same manner as a harpoon, the gun-pole being retrieved by a line attached to the boat, the iron remaining in the whale.
Except in the case of lone bulls, guns were of no use among sperm whales; the discharge scared the herd—or as the whaleman said, "gallied the pod."
G—An English double flued iron with "stop withers."
H—The Greener gun—used by Dundee whalers in the Arctic.
J—The harpoon—with slot and travelling ring—fired from the Greener gun.
THIS type of steering wheel known as "shin cracker" was peculiar to the Yankee whaleships. The wheel was mounted on the tiller and the helm was moved by means of tackle which ran around the drum, through sheaves and blocks to the bulwarks. Consequently, when the steersman turned the wheel he walked back and forward with it across the deck.
In the deck over him there was a small hatch through which he could watch the sails.
THE foc's'le was reached by a hatch, forward of the mainmast, which also served as the only inlet for daylight and fresh air.
In some cases the ceiling was so low that any man above average height could not stand upright. In heavy weather the deck was never dry, due to leaky hawse pipes and dripping oilskins, and in the tropics it was a furnace. Altogether, the combined odours of unwashed bodies, unwashed clothes, bilge water, tobacco and oil lanterns, made it a noisome habitation.
The men's bunks were ranged in a double tier along the sides and their sea chests, lashed to the deck, served as benches.
THIS ancient contrivance known as a log windlass was only a slight improvement over its predecessor in which the barrel was laboriously turned by wooden bars or "handspikes" inserted in holes.
In the one shown a ratchet mechanism was added, and when weighing anchor or cutting in a whale, four or five men on each side pumped the brake handles up and down.
One has but to compare this heartbreaking relic to the modern steam or electric winch to appreciate the truth of the captain's allusion to a yachting cruise.
HERE the cook, or "doctor" as he was called, prepared the food for officers and crew. The galley was located aft on the starboard side, abreast of the wheel, where the steersman might get an occasional cup of coffee from the cook to ease his trick at the wheel.
How different to the case of the man at the wheel in merchant ships, stamping his feet and blowing on his fingers in the roaring forties, and looking with wistful eyes towards the galley at the far end of the deck.
THE crews of Yankee whalers up to, and including, the fifties were made up mostly of Americans drawn from the neighbourhood of the ships' home port.
As the great West opened up, the movement overland diverted the native American from the sea, and in the declining years of the industry crews were composed mainly of Portuguese, Negroes, and Bravas from the Cape Verde Islands.
Whaling crews were not paid wages but were given a "lay," or share in the profits at the end of the voyage.
The lay scale was graded down from 1/16th for the captain to 1/200th for a green hand—and even less to the cabin boy.
At the end of a long voyage, when the ship was credited with oil valued at $250,000, or more, the sailors' share was quite worth while.
THE blacksmith's duties lay in the care of all the harpoons, spades, lances, boarding and mincing knives, and kindred gear.
When whales were being killed and brought alongside he was a busy man, straightening and repairing irons, and keeping the cutting-in stage supplied with keen-edged spades.
WHEN a whaleship set out on a voyage she was loaded from keel to deck with casks of various sizes, from the largest, of fourteen barrel capacity, to long, narrow ones, known as "ryers," used to fill empty spaces and odd corners. Many of them were filled with fresh water to serve as ballast, and all the spare sails, food, clothing (slops) and other reserve articles were headed up in casks.
In due course they were emptied and filled with oil, and the cooper's task was to keep them in good condition, and, if need arose, to construct new ones from the staves, heads and hoops which he had in reserve.
The term "barrel" was only used as a unit of measure:—a cask was spoken of as an eight barrel cask or a whale's size was reckoned in so many barrels.
An average whaler carried in the neighbourhood of five hundred casks of all sizes, and the keeping of them in serviceable condition involved constant watchfulness and work on the cooper's part.
No ONE was busier than the ship's boy. Helping the steward in the pantry, turning the grindstone, peeling potatoes for the cook, or running aloft to tie stops in the buntlines, he was kept hopping from one job to another.
He doubtless found ere long that whaling was not as romantic a pursuit as he had dreamed it to be, and cried himself to sleep in homesickness many times before the end of the voyage.
COILING LINE TUBS
THE coiling of the whale line in the boats' tubs was a matter demanding extreme care, as not only did the catching of whales depend on the line, but improper coiling might produce sudden kinks and fouling, to result in the maiming or killing of one or more of the crew, or even the loss of the boat itself.
Whale line was made of "long manila fibre" and was three quarters of an inch in diameter. Even when new it was as pliable as an old shoe lace and capable of sustaining a weight of three tons.
In coiling, the line was laid out on deck, the end passed through a snatch block on the mainstay over head, and thence down to the tub. The end, with its eye splice, was left hanging over the edge of the tub where it could be bent onto the second tub should necessity arise.
The line was coiled clockwise to the centre, thence to the side, and the process repeated until the tub was full.
This was known as a "flake" or "Flemish coil."
Each boatsteerer attended to the coiling of his own tubs, a helper meanwhile twisted the line to the left as he pulled it down through the block.
TEN DOLLARS REWARD
IN SOME ships, when whales were scarce, and weeks—even months—elapsed without a kill it was the custom for the captain to have a five or ten dollar gold piece nailed to the mainmast to be claimed by the first man who sighted a "blow."
"WHAT'S this—the cook's pocketbook?"
Jack always ate his meals on deck except in inclement weather. Salt beef or pork, cooked in a sadly unvarying fashion, was served in small wooden tubs called "kids," and the sailor's treasured privilege, no matter what the quality of the fare might be, was to make uncomplimentary remarks about the cook and all his ancestors.
"FRESH FISH FOR THE COOK TO SPOIL"
IN THE warmer latitudes there were always fish playing about the ship's bows: bonita, baracouta, dolphins and porpoises
To vary the weary round of salt "horse" it was no trick at all for one of the boatsteerers to take himself into the martingale stays and bring up a fish that would arouse the envy of any landlubber angler.
1—SPERM WHALE. This whale was long avoided by the early whalemen before means were perfected to meet his wary and pugnacious character.
A large sperm whale would measure sixty-five feet and give eighty barrels of oil. Many larger ones have been taken but the average gave forty-five barrels.
Its natural food is the giant squid, which it finds at profound depths—a half mile or more.
Sperm whales are usually found in herds or "pods," except in the case of occasional "lone bulls."
Excerpted from Greasy Luck by Gordon Grant. Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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