The History of Whaling Ships

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    The Beginning

    • Whaling watercraft can be traced to about 1644 when colonists on Long Island began hunting whales along the shore in small, flat boats in which the whales were harpooned with floats attached. Once the whale was harpooned it became fatigued from dragging the floats and then killed with lances. When whale stock was exhausted by the 1720s off the New England shore, single-masted sloops were developed to search for whales farther offshore.

    Two-Masted Schooners

    • In the 18th century deep-water whaling throughout the Atlantic Ocean occurred when single-masted sloops were replaced by two-masted schooners and brigs with square rigging. These new ships were a result of a dramatic increase in the need for whale products. Sperm whales became highly sought because their oil burned cleanly. Whale oil lubricant quality was superior to other products. Secretions from whale intestines made excellent perfumes.


    • By the early 19th century, try-works technology revolutionized the operation of extracting whale products aboard ship instead of hauling the carcass to port. Try-works involved two iron pots placed inside a brick furnace on the ship, usually square-rigged masted models, to boil whale oil. This allowed the ships to stay longer at sea, capture more whales and bring more oil and related products to port. In addition, these ships were equipped with cedar-planked whaleboats for maneuverability and speed; the smaller boats could harpoon and haul the whale back to the mother ship to be tied alongside for cutting.

    The Ships

    • A typical whaling ship was crewed by up to 35 men using up to five whaleboats. The Essex, for example, plied the Atlantic and Pacific waters. It was 87 feet long and weighed 238 tons. Its whaleboats measured between 20 and 30 feet long. In 1820, a sperm whale rammed the Essex in the South Pacific, punching a hole below the waterline. The Essex sank. Another whaling ship, the Charles W. Morgan, was built in 1841 and retired in 1921 after 37 voyages. The New Bedford, Mass.-based Charles W. Morgan brought to port lubricating oil for industrial machinery, lamp oil and whalebone. The ship measured 133 feet long and displaced almost 314 tons, according to Mystic Seaport.


    • The use of whaling ships peaked in 1857. Two years later, petroleum was discovered in Pennsylvania and whale oil was no longer needed as a fuel for lamps. Numerous whaling ships were destroyed during the 1861 to 1865 Civil War, and whaling expeditions to the North Pole in the 1870s resulted in the loss of many ships. Whalebone was replaced by spring steel in the early 20th century and the whale products were no longer in demand.

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