Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Whaleboat History

June 2014: Delivering a boat to the Open Water Challenge so that the racing crew would be fresh for the 3.75-mile race.
I have since had the chance to be in the race a couple of times, and lucky enough to be on a winning crew in 2017.
As I wrote in my November 2012 post Harbor Learning, I first learned of whaleboat clubs from a Boston Globe article about the activity (hurray, journalists!), and within a few weeks found myself on the water. I continue to enjoy the physical exercise, the company of new friends, and the learning that always happens in these boats.

On the learning front, I was pleased to be able to give back in a small way on the learning front. One of my whaleboat clubs (I'm a member of two now) sponsors an annual skills contest called the Wicked Whaleboat Challenge. Circling Crow's Island, crews compete not on speed or endurance, but rather on fairly complicated maneuvers.

I helped to design the original challenge (on a cocktail napkin, truth be told) and have competed a couple of times. This year, I provided the coffee and an essay on whaleboat history for the event's program booklet. (Caveat: I am a geographer, so this is not really a history.)

Now that the event has passed, I am posting that essay here for any who might be interested. Fortunately, the event coordinator (more like mastermind) is also an excellent graphic designer, so he gave me a word limit; otherwise I would have followed tangents for days in writing the essay. I kept it brief and focused on New Bedford; I included a couple of key links for those wishing to learn more.

Herewith:

The Wicked Whaleboat Challenge is a time for fun on the water and tests of skills and athleticism, but it is much more.  For nearly two centuries, the skills on display today have been practiced and honed on these very waters. In this remarkable harbor between New Bedford and Fairhaven, the Yankee whaleboat was perfected and thousands of crewmembers were trained to row them on all of the world’s oceans. 

The boats used in today’s event are fiberglass replicas of the wooden whaleboats that were designed by Charles Beetle, the best known of many builders who supplied the New Bedford fleet during the peak of its prominence in the world-wide hunt for whales and their oil. His design was successful on the water and also in the workshop, where its simplicity allowed for quick production, averaging one hand-built boat per week for two decades during the middle of the nineteenth century.

Each ship carried aboard up to a half dozen of the boats, all high in the stern and bow. Everything about them – from the high double-bow to the carefully-chosen set of tools on board – was calculated to make them effective tools for the pursuit of whales. Though equipped with both oars and sails, the rowing was the more important during the hunt. 

Once a whaleship got close to a whale, a crew would be lowered quickly to the water and the chase would immediately be on. An officer would steer the boat from the stern with a long oar, commanding the rowers to adjust their port or starboard speed to complement his actions. The crew would advance steadily on a speeding whale, and once within reach, that same officer would move to leading bow to harpoon the whale. The panicked leviathan would often pull the boat in what came to be known as a Nantucket Sleigh Ride, and eventually the exhausted animal would be dispatched by lances carried in the boat.

The names of the boats in today’s race are significant. The Skylark is named in honor of the first boat ever to win a whaleboat race in this harbor, an 1857 jaunt of just under three miles in just over 25 minutes. The Flying Fish honors the winner of an 1859 Independence Day race, and the Herman Melville honors the author whose work introduced the reading public to the workings of whaleships.

In the early 20th century, demand for the boats declined as petroleum began to replace whale oil. Members of the Beetle family continued to apply their expertise in the mass production of wooden boats by turning their attention to recreational boats, most notably the Beetle Cat, which the company continues to produce in nearby Wareham.

The continuity of the Beetle workshop proved to be a boon to maritime heritage when, in 2014, the company was called upon to produce a new whaleboat for the 38th voyage of the Charles W. Morgan. The restoration of America’s oldest commercial ship required that it be outfitted with new whaleboats of the original Beetle design. The fact that one of these boats could be produced in a Beetle workshop added poignancy to the first whaleship voyage under sail in 90 years.

Since the Morgan’s New England tour, that “genuine replica” has been part of the collection of the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Whaling City Rowing is proud to collaborate with the Museum by operating that boat on a seasonal basis in the very harbor where the design of the Yankee whaleboat was perfected nearly two centuries ago.

Sources: beetlecat.com, whalingmuseum.org, and whalingcityrowing.org

Lagniappe

The learning will also continue in my geography classes. This spring I created an assignment for our senior seminar, in which students used maps and forecasts to make hypothetical plans for outings in the harbor. I also plan to use much of what I have learned about whaleboats in a two-week summer class I call New Bedford Fortnight.

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