Whaling Ships – A Few Historical Details

It’s time to talk about the actual whale ships. But don’t confuse them with the whaleboats – there is a difference. Whaleboats were the smaller vessels used in the actual hunt; they were about 28-30 feet in length and not designed for a long voyage and equipped with oars, steering oar, and long lengths of rope which would be connected to the harpoon.

Today, we’ll focus on the big ship. The one that left harbor, sailed around the world, carried the smaller whaleboats, housed the crew, provided a platform for the boiling pots, and stored the barrels and bundles of profit. How big were these ships? What was the layout of the decks? How much could a ship stand from weather and other forces of nature? Let’s explore…

(For those of you who might be wondering about a new post on Thursday… Since we skipped a maritime post on Wednesday last week, you’ll get two this week to keep the series on schedule.)

Boiling blubber onboard a whaling ship.

Ship’s Purpose

A home away from home. And a bank for accumulating wealth. That’s an easy and creative way to think of a whaling ship.

When the Nantucketeers decided to prepare for longer voyages to hunt the sperm whales, they started modifying the rigging and shape of their ships to be more practical for the job. Later, tackles were added to hoist and lower the whaleboats…and the most important innovation: platforms to build fires to boil the whale blubber into oil. That last innovation made it possible for whale ships to make the long and international voyages because they had a way to process the blubber into oil while they were at sea.

Aside from being a sort of floating “factory” boiling and storing blubber, the whale ship was a sort of home, meaning it had sleeping quarters, kitchen, storage, and “tool cabinets or bins.” It carried its own shop of supplies, extra equipment, and some extra commodities.

The ship acted like a bank, a deposit in the hold for barrels of whale oil or bundles of baleen. The crew stashed their profits away within their ship, waiting and working toward the day they could sail home and cash in on their pay.

A whaling ship, c. 1854. (Might be a foreign whaling ship; possibly not an American build, but still a good illustration.)

Ship’s Size

By the mid-19th Century the average size of a whaling ship intended for lengthy voyages was approximately 100-150 feet in length, 25 feet in width, and anywhere from 250-400 tons; these ships were usually square rigged.

Ship’s Cost

Whaling was an industry. Investors wanted to make money. So…how much did it cost to build a new whaling ship?

Well, shipbuilding is its own trade and industry, and it changed from year to year, depending on circumstances and supplies for ship building. Researchers have estimated that a new whale during the 1850’s cost between $40,000 and $50,000. Typically, the burden of that investment wasn’t shouldered by just one person. Multiple investors spread the cost of the ship and shared the profits.

Ship’s Layout

This diagram from an 1887 publication shows an example of the interior of a whale ship. Notice that there is a lot of storage for barrels of oil. There’s a small room toward the bow of the ship – that’s where the crew lodged. At the back of the ship, there’s room for small cabins – that’s where the captain and officers stayed.

Ship’s Endurance

All ships are built to survive. With good seamanship, whaling ships could weather storms quite well. Of course, there were storms that couldn’t be weathered, and whaling ships were lost at sea. Also, running aground, shipwrecking, or crashing into an iceberg had devastating effects.

Overall, the design of a whaleship was sturdy and capable for its intended work. Built well in the New England shipyards, a whaleship seemed like a floating home-base or fortress to return to after hunting whales.

What about whales? Could a whale sink a ship? Hmm… There just might be more fact than fiction to some parts of the Moby Dick tale after-all. More on that incident in the coming weeks!

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

One thought on “Whaling Ships – A Few Historical Details

  1. Pingback: The Whales: Leviathans and “Fish” | Gazette665

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