Whaling Ships – Decline Of Whaling

Whaling Ships – Decline Of Whaling

Whaling ships and their crews were at their peak in the mid 1800’s but the discovery of petroleum changed that around the turn of the century. Read this fascinating article that appeared in the Los Angeles Herald in 1907. The read is long but if you want to get a feel for what life was like on the whaling ships, its well worth the time.

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whaling ships decline

OF all American Industries whaling is one of the oldest and yet one in which, although neglected and be coming a thing of the past, there has been little, If any, development Sixty years ago, when the Industry was at Its height, no less than 730 vessels were scouring the seas In search of the leviathans and every one of these craft flew the American ensign.

old whaling portsThe New England states, and particularly Massachusetts, were the principal headquarters of the whalemen while the little town of New Bedford, Mass., was the center. In 1864, from New Bedford alone there sailed out 118 whaling ships bound to every port on the globe. In 1904, half a century later, there were but five ships to sail for the whaling grounds. The latest issue of the Whalemen’s Shipping List shows that there are today engaged In the whaling Industry but 86 vessels representing all that Is left of the once great business.

What is the cause of this decline of the whaling ships one may ask. It is the result of an evolution. When the whaling Industry was at Its high-water mark the discovery of petroleum was made, a discovery that Instantly created a revolution in more than one sense. At that time whale oil was used for lighting but petroleum, cheaper and more plentiful, speedily came into general use.

whaling-ship-late-1800'sWith the demand tor the cheaper fuel came a drop in the price of whale oil, not much at first but as the various by-products of petroleum developed and many articles that were formerly made of oil were superseded by petroleum the price of the oil gradually but surely declined, striking the death blow to the industry of the deep.

Some idea of what this means may be understood when one learns that in 1866 sperm oil sold for $2.86 a gallon whereas today it is quoted at 51 cents a gallon. One of the remarkable features of the industry is that in all these years there has been but little development in the methods employed in the pursuit, of the whale and what little development there has been is chiefly in the use of a few steam vessels and the adaption of modern rig to the sailing ships employed.

The use of the steam whaling ships is adapted to the Arctic waters, where it is more handy in dodging vast floes and escaping the danger of being nipped by the ice, a fate that has sent so many staunch sailing craft to the bottom. Then too the steamers employ steam for the trying out of the oil, Instead of boiling it as is done on the sailing craft. Donkey engines for hoisting are modern features on many of the sailing craft, while iron tanks take the place of wooden ones.

Of the apparatus used in the capture and killing of the whale there is practically no change and the implements now used were in vogue half a century ago. Of the death-dealing appliance the shoulder bomb gun and lance play the most important part, and every whaler carries a full supply of them. The bomb-gun Is a light but powerful and effective weapon.

The bomb consists of a brass tube from four to six Inches long and filled with gunpowder. Like a torpedo it is not intended to explode until it has pierced the vitals of the mammal and its work is almost instantaneous. This weapon and its projectile is the Invention of Capt Eben Pierce, a hardy Down Easter, who made the first one In Honolulu.

lancing a whaleThis was 40 or more years ago and it marked the last stage of development along that line, the first being the sword lance, the second the lance-bomb. With these instruments it was necessary to go alongside the whale and required the utmost skill in placing the lances in just the right place. With the gun the approach was less close and yet, despite the gun there are today whalers who disdain to use anything save the sword lance.

The process of “cutting In” and “trying out” a whale is almost exactly the same as it was 50 years ago, except, as stated, the steam whalers use steam instead of the fires. There is one incentive, however, that keeps and will always keep a few whale men, afloat and that in the high price of whalebone. The industry is divided Into three classes — those who hunt for sperm whales alone, those who hunt for sperm and right whales and those who hunt for right and bow-head whales.

The length of a whaling voyage nowadays varies from four months to three years whereas in the palmy days a vessel rarely returned in less than four years and was frequently gone five. The old timers went in search of both the right and the sperm whales and as the habitat of these species is widely separated the cruises of the early whale-men necessarily involved traversing the warm and cold seas alike. At the present time there are but few craft that combine the two kinds of whaling.

The officers and crew of whaling ships number about 38 men. Instead of being given fixed wages, the old way of shipping on shares is yet in vogue. Each member of the crew, from the highest to the lowest, goes on a “lay.” When the voyage has ended, the catch figured out, the expenses of the vessel deducted and all debts made good the “divvy” is made and each receives his pay according to his lay. The lay of the captain may be one-fourteenth while that of the cabin boy may be as little as one two hundredth and fiftieth, this portion being known as the “long lay.”

Just before the whaler is about to sail her small boats are brought to her. Every vestal of over ten tons carries small boats but those the whaler carries are peculiar to themselves. A whaling bark carries six or seven of them. Four are swung to davits and the others, known hs spare boats, are carried bottom up on the deck bouses. The boats on the davits are carried differently from those on ordinary craft for the whaler carries but one on the starboard side and three on the port side.

The first few days of the voyage are busy ones. The crew is mustered aft and the captain reads the law, giving each to understand that the regulations are to be observed, that each man must work In harmony with the other for the good of all, that there, mast be no shirking sad that the penalty will be the forfeiting of the lay. Then the watches are chosen and the routine begins. The greenhorns, if there are any, are taught the ropes, etc., and members of the crew are sent aloft to rig the “crow’s nests.” At the fore and main topgallant cross trees platforms are fitted and above, waist high hoops, like great spectacles, are secured.

whaling ship with oil barrelsThe masthead lookout creeps up on the platform, through the hoop, rests his arms on the latter, and begins his vigil. From daylight until dark, in two hour shifts, the crow’s nests are manned. The whaler is sailed steadily and as rapidly as possible throngbout the day but with the coming of darkness, sail is shortened and she is virtually hove to. If the weather is fair to moderate and there are a number of inexperienced men in the crew the monotony of the daylight cruising is broken by boat drills. Perhaps a school of blackflsh, a small specie of whale from 16 feet to 24 feet is picked up and then the crews are given practice with them. These fish yield from three to five barrels of oil but, as a rule, the whaleshlps do not bother with them except for the purpose of training the crew for the larger and more profitable fish.

It may be a day, a week, a month or even longer before the first whale is sighted but when that time comes and the familiar cry “There she blows – There she blows” Is heard from aloft and tremor of excitement is felt by every one on board.

“Where away?” queries the skipper and as the answer “About three points off the port quarter, sir” is heard every eye is turned in that direction. A mile or two away a small stream of water rising out of the bosom of the sea like a tiny fountain denotes the presence of a whale. Instantly all is action, the crews of the small boats rush to their stations and at the command “Lower away” three crafts splash Into the water and four pair of arms In each hurry them to their quarry.

Each whaleboat carries a crew of six – an officer, a boatsteerer and four oarsmen. The boats are each twenty-eight feet long, six feet beam with a round buoyant bottom and a deep sheer that enables them to ride dry under conditions that would quickly swamp the ordinary type of boat of the same length. The boats are provided with centerboards and mast and sails and an ordinary rudder as well as a twenty-two foot steering oar.

Despite the boats being comparatively small and their crews of six taking considerable space, it is astonishing how much gear, etc., is also carried. In addition to the two tubs of whale line, each line being several hundred fathoms long, four or five harpoons, lances, a hatchet or two and four knives, the latter being kept handy in event of having to cut the whale line, there are “waif flags,” a fluke spade, a boat hook and a number of smaller articles, all of which are used in the hunt. Then there is another outfit and that is for the preservation and comfort of the men. This consists of a drag to which the boat lays in event of heavy weather, a keg of bread, a breaker of water, a keg containing a lantern, candles, matches, tobacco and pipes, a package of “First Aid to the Wounded” and a compass.

When chasing a whale the boatsteerer, who Is also the harpooner, pulls the forward oar. As a rule a whale pays little attention to the approaching boat which, with oars and oarlocks wrapped with rope, silently comes up along side. Then the harpooner drops his oar, picks up either his harpoon or bomb-gun and waits for a favorable moment.

whale on side of whaling boatGenerally the first warning that the whale has is the report of the gun and he plunges for the bottom. Too late, however, for even as he makes his first movement the deadly bomb has exploded in his vitals and the water is reddening with his blood. There is no sport at all in this method of whaling and many men, although it is a matter of business, will not adopt it. They prefer to give the mammal a chance.

With the harpoon there is a difference. The thrower standing in the bow of his boat hurls the iron with all his might. Then, before the whale has recovered from his astonishment at the prick, an other iron is thrust into him. With a mighty sweep of his tall the monster darts head down for the bottom of the sea, the whale line runs out of the tub and over a brass roller in the bow with such rapidity that it fairly smokes from the friction. Indeed it is often necessary to pour water on it. At last when the 75 or 80 fathom mark is reached there is a slackening of the line, then a stop and the men know that the whale has turned and is ascending. This is the most ticklish part of the work. The sperm whale is a great fighter, using its tail and jaw with fearful effect and many a galiant crew have become victims to its ferocity.

As the whale comes toward the surface the line is watched, the stack hauled in and coiled back in the tubs for sometimes the whale has to be played, especially if his struggles consist of numberless soundings. Sometimes the whale will rush away dragging the boat through the water at terrific speed, so fast that if there is any sea, the lines have to be cut to prevent being swamped. When the whale has been played until it is exhausted and lies still the really critical part of the work comes – placing the lance. Again the boat is placed along side and the long sword-llke weapon is plunged deep into the . monster’s side. There is another rush or sounding but the death wound has been given and in a little while the whale turns on its back and expires.

It Is curious to note that almost every whale dies with its head toward the sun and also that when dead it rolls over on its side exposing one of its fins, hence the whalers use the expression “fin out” when referring to death.

With the death of the whale begins the real work. The huge fish is towed to the ship and laid along side, tail to the bow. All whalers “cut In” on the starboard side and the ship’s rail Is removed and a platform rigged out. On this stand the cutters and they work with long spades. First a hole is cut near the whale’s eye while other cuts are made, four feet apart, until a great strip, known as the “blanket piece” is outlined. Than from the rigging a block and fall with a blubber hook is lowered, the hook fastened in the hole, the windlass manned and the sheet of blubber, like a great piece of sod, is raised. The blubber, a foot or more thick is then cut in small pieces and lowered into the hold to be treated later.

In the meantime a man is cutting off the whale’s head, a task of much difficulty requiring from two to four boors but it is time well spent for the head of the sperm whale is valuable. It is divided into three parts— the case, the junk and the bony part The case is the upper part and has a cavity filled with clear oil known ts spermaceti, sometimes as much as 23 barrels, which Is the most valuable of the yield. The relative value of the head is such that it usually yields two fifths of the oil from the entire whale. The Junk is a wedge-shaped mass ot cellular formation of flesh that contains several barrels of oil. The bony part is the skull and the lower Jaw bone and this is usually saved for making ornaments, canes, etc., called “skrimshonlng” by the whale-men.

blubber-hooksWhen all parts of value have been taken from the whale and placed on board the remainder of the carcass is cut adrift — food for sharks which quickly gather tor the feast. In the blubber room men with knives and spades cut the meat into bits about a foot and a half long and six Inches wide— “horse pieces”— and these are then carried to the “mincing house” a table where men slash them into thin slices that just hang together like pieces of bacon. These pieces are then known as “books” and they are then ready for the try-pots.

The pots are huge Iron kettles beneath which fires are built and as the oil tries out of the blubber it is balled into copper receptacles to cool and is then barreled and stowed away In the lower hold. The residue of the blubber— the scrap — is used for fuel and thus it may be said that a whale furnishes its own fuel.

The trying out is the hardest and most disagreeable part of whaling and aside from that labor there is the task of getting the ship clean again. Of coarse if there are few whales there is not much to be done, but a quick voyage with good returns means that there has been very little if any Idle time either fore or aft. Life on whaling ships as an occupation is an exciting one and as long as there is a profit in it there will, perhaps, always be a few adventursome spirits who will ship on such voyages.


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