A Whaling Voyage

We’re launching into our blog feature on American whaling during the 19th Century. (Catch the introduction here, if you missed it!) And it seems the best place to begin is at the beginning of a voyage.

Whale hunting was an industry – a business – in 19th Century America. Ship owners intended to make a profit on the whale oil brought home. However, sending a whale ship to sea was a risky venture. Unlike a merchant ship that would sail quietly along, ideally weathering the storms, and (hopefully) return with a profitable cargo and no lives lost, a whale ship was like a battleship.

Sending a whaling ship to sea was almost a game of chance or like betting on a gladiatorial combat. The captain, crew, and sometimes the ship itself would fight the largest known animals on the planet. It would be a struggle for life and death between two foes – one, massive and powerful, the other, armed with small, deadly metal implements and long, long ropes.

Today’s blog post focuses on getting a whale ship to sea and its voyage to the hunting grounds. Though I’m certainly thankful that whaling isn’t a common practice anymore, it was a fascinating chapter in American maritime and business.

Whaleship Niantic, c. 1840

Who Owned The Ship?

During the 19th Century, businessmen usually owned the whaling ship. They put forward the money to outfit the ship with supplies. They might have even paid for the ship’s building. Sometimes, the owners were retired whale ship captains who’d made a fortune in the industry. Each whaling town/community had its “leading” men who funded the voyages and reaped the lion’s share of profits.

The captains and crew had financial interest in the voyage too since their pay was based on the success and profits. Typically, they received a percentage (often called a “lay” in the industry language) of the profits; that percentage was directly based on their role and position on the ship.

Owen Chase – first mate on the Whaleship Essex. This is a photograph taken later in his life.

Choosing The Captain & Crew

Since outfitting a ship was a business venture, choosing captain and crew was also an investment. An experienced captain might make a faster and more profitable voyage than a newbie. Captains typically grew up in the industry and worked their way to the top, achieving knowledge of every aspect; sometimes, family name ensure a captaincy for an inexperience man since nepotism wasn’t uncommon among the whaling moguls.

Sometimes the business men chose the crew, sometimes the captain did. It usually depended on the level of trust the financiers had in their captain. Ship officers under the captain were referred to as “mates,” and “first mate” was second in command to the captain.

Hierarchy on a whaling ship aligned for the”battle-stations.” Mates commanded the smaller whale boats (used to go out and hunt the whales, while the large ship remained a “home base”) and each of the smaller whale boats had their crew – a harpooner and oarsmen. Harpooners – the guys who threw the harpoons at the whales – had to be bold and experienced, and they had higher “rank” and pay percents than the regular crewmen.

Part of Nantucket – later 19th Century, past its golden age of whaling

Getting Out Of Harbor

Leaving harbor – particularly in Nantucket (an island whaling community off the Massachusetts shore) – was a test. The whale ship, complete with captain, crew, and provisions to last a couple years, had to sail out while the ship owners and local population watched. Keep in mind, these folks knew what seamanship was…and wasn’t.

Every movement from hoisting the anchor to handling the sails was scrutinized through spyglasses until the ship was out of sight. A successful captain and first mate could make their not-yet-united crew perform with speed and skill, impressing the investors and their families ashore. Less experienced officers might struggle.

In the superstitious community, getting out of harbor was sometimes considered an omen for the voyage’s success. And there might have been some truth in that idea; a well-handled ship would already have luck on its side through skill and experience.

Where Were The Whales?

As the 19th Century dawned, whaling had been going on for centuries. Other countries had powerful whaling fleets too. Early in the history of American whaling, whales beached on the eastern shores and were quickly butchered (more on this earliest form of whale hunting later in the series.) At that time, pods of whales swam along the coast, in sight of the land.

However, 18th Century hunting destroyed these pods or forced them farther out to sea. By the 19th Century, an American whale ship might circle the globe looking for whale pods and prime hunting ground. In a dark study of biology, the whalers knew the exact migration routes of different whale species, where they congregated to feed, and where the breeding grounds (really “waters,” but they called them “grounds”) were.

Depending the preferred species of whale for the voyage, a captain would set a course for the whale pods’ location based on the season and the known area they should be. By the 19th Century, some of the most profitable hunting grounds were in the Pacific – a long voyage from the eastern shore of the United States.

How Long Was The Voyage?

Typically, a whaling voyage was about two years. But it could be longer or shorter, depending on circumstances. American whaling ships could put into foreign ports to restock food and water, if necessary, but they carried a vast amount of supplies.

Ideally, a whale ship didn’t return to the home port until every barrel in her hold was filled with whale oil. That was their money, their profit…and the investors and owners would be severely disappointed if they didn’t return successfully. Additionally, rank and status in whaling communities depended on successful voyages. Captain and crew men gained reputations based on the length and success of their hunting trips; they could earn (or require) a larger percent of pay based on that reputation.

Now that we’ve discussed some aspects of outfitting, crewing, sailing, and voyaging a whaling ship, we’ll talk about what happened when the hunters found a pod of whales. Next week…

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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2 Responses to A Whaling Voyage

  1. Pingback: Whaling: Hunters & Hunted | Gazette665

  2. Pingback: Whaling: Oil & “Bone” – Making A Profit | Gazette665

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