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A Whaleman's Holiday Was Rugged Sport
Henry Beetle Hough
November 09, 1959
Yesterday...whalers raced on their days off, testing their boats and their mettle
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November 09, 1959

A Whaleman's Holiday Was Rugged Sport

Yesterday...whalers raced on their days off, testing their boats and their mettle

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The whaleboat was designed to be a working craft. But she had beauty and speed in her lines, and was the best sea boat ever built. Over two generations ago proud whalemen decided to test the speed of their craft. The result was a series of famous whaleboat races that stirred the hearts of seafaring New Engenders in the late nineteenth century.

The spiritual mother of the whale-boat was the Indian canoe. Unlike most boats intended to be fast, the whaleboat's capability for speed was only one of its many superb characteristics. The whaleboat was a double-ender, with both ends sharp. Her length was from 28 to 30 feet, the beam 5� feet and the weight from 500 to 600 pounds; she carried a crew of six men who together weighed a thousand pounds more.

Clifford W. Ashley, a New Bedford artist who went whaling, described whaleboats in accents of loving admiration: "A whaleboat had no deadwood aft, as this would interfere with quick turning. There was a very pronounced sheer and the 'run' (afterbody) was considerably finer than the 'entrance' (forward end)."

The timbers were of thin, steamed and bent white oak, the planks of white cedar, the ceiling, thwarts and platforms of white pine. For its size and strength, the whaleboat was lithe and light, built so because even the heaviest boat would be smashed as easily by a whale's flukes—this being so, the proper thing was to seek maneuverability, swiftness, and all-round capability in the open sea.

One of the crew of six was the boat-header, referred to as the captain in the whaleboat races, who stood in the stern and steered with an oar from 20 to 23 feet long. The longest oars in sea duty were those of the whaleboat, and of these the steering oar was longest by two to five feet.

The five oarsmen sat one to each thwart, and each sat not in the middle but at the full width of the boat from his rowlock. This arrangement was necessary for the balance of the rowing and increased the finesse with which the boat could be handled. One long oar (18 feet) and two short (16 feet) oars were pulled on one side against two medium-length oars (17 feet) on the other. Usually the three were on the starboard side. The business of rowing in a whaleboat was complicated for green hands by the fact that they could lift their oars only with effort and discomfort.

The first of what may be termed an historic sequence of whaleboat races took place on July 4, 1875 in New Bedford. New Bedford was the great whaling center, and the ports of Edgartown and Vineyard Haven on the island of Martha's Vineyard, though distinctly secondary, had produced an amazing number of successful whalemen. The necessary germ of rivalry lay here, and it happened that the newly fashionable summer resort of Oak Bluffs offered a deep-water course, with open sea conditions parallel to high ground ashore and in full view of the multitudes.


No whalemen up to then had imagined a whaleboat named Laetitia, but here was one, and from Quaker New Bedford; here too were the Marengo, painted purple; Squid, yellow; and from Fairhaven, the town across the river from New Bedford, Black Fiend, painted, of course, black.

There were eight entries, and the Martha's Vineyard boat had been named in perverse humor Last of All. Prizes were posted in the amounts of $50, $25, $15, and $10, and the course was two miles around a stake boat to the starting line. Along the bluffs the spectators chattered and yelled until the shore of Vineyard Sound became as noisy as a ball game.

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