Life onboard a Whaleship

Men work aboard a whaling vessel to cut meat.
Two foremast-hands mince whale blubber (1925). Photo courtesy: New Bedford Whaling Museum

The world of the ship was isolated, highly structured, racially integrated, and, by the mid-1800s, increasingly populated by captains' wives and children who joined on longer voyages.

Though the sea is traditionally understood as romantic landscape, whaling was not a romantic business. In the earliest years of the industry, whalemen were from seafaring communities and were brought up to view the ship as their workplace.

In addition to being dirty and dangerous, whaling was monotonous work. Life onboard consisted of long periods of boredom; for weeks, even months, no whales would be seen. The crew would repair gear, write letters, play games and music, and carve scrimshaw — pieces of whale bone or tooth — to pass the time. Food and water would often become foul, and fights would break out among the crew because of the uncomfortable conditions. Men of all ranks and races faced danger from injury, illness, shipwreck, drowning, and piracy.

Whale sightings equated to short bursts of excitement as the men rushed to catch the whale, and then kill and process it.

Ranks on a Whaleship
Depending on the size of a vessel, crews ranged in size from fifteen to forty men. Each man held a role with which came specific tasks. These ranks, arranged in a rigid hierarchy, determined the authority each crew member held.

Captain/Master: Perhaps the term Master was more applicable than captain. This individual had complete control and authority over the whaleship and its operations. As one whaling captain said to his timid crew while on the whaling grounds, “I am God.”

Mates/Officers: These numbered three or four men, descending from the First Mate to the Fourth Mate. Each commanded their own whaleboat, and acted as the captain’s direct supervisors of the rest of the crew.

Boatsteerers/Harpooneers: Three to five crew members rowed the whaleboat and one threw the harpoon, hoping to latch onto the whale. This began the process of the whale hunt. They enjoyed more liberties than the average crew member.

Mechanics: These craftsmen, ranging in jobs from blacksmiths, coopers, carpenters, steward, and the cook, ranked higher than the average crewman. They performed specialized jobs onboard the vessel, and they stayed behind when the crew went out on a hunt to care for the ship.

Foremast Hands/Crewmen: The majority of the crew was made up of foremast hands. They performed daily duties of cleaning the vessel and taking turns on watch. During a hunt, these men rowed the whaleboats to their prospective prey.

Greenhands: These were first timers. Ranking the lowest of all the crew members they had a lot to learn. Most greenhands deserted their vessel before their voyage ended. People in New Bedford use the term “greenhorn” to this day.

Left, a goat onboard a ship; right, a seamen holds a mixing bowl and spoon.
Left, A billy-goat aboard a Cape Verdean ship (1928); right, Frank Bradshaw, the cook, peels potatoes (1925). Photos courtesy: New Bedford Whaling Museum
Food on a Whaleship
Whalemen ate and slept according to their rank. The captain ate the best meals and slept in the stateroom; deck hands slept in bunks in the forecastle, at the front of the ship.

Fresh food ran out quickly: hungry crewmen ate salted meat, bug-infested hardtack, and beans. Crew constantly caught fresh fish, turtles, seabirds, and dolphin. Everyone looked forward to resupply stops at port, where they could bring on fresh fruits and vegetables.

Whaleships carried goats, as well as cows, hogs, and chickens, to supply the men with fresh milk, eggs, and meat.
The Slop Chest
Whaling was said to be good money — but sailors quickly discovered the truth. They were paid not by a wage, but by a share of profits. A low-ranking sailor might get half a percent of the final take, or profit. The take was determined by the ship’s owner, however, who deducted for the cost of the voyage. Many men got paid in advance, in order to send money home to their families.

Whalemen had to pay a share of the ship’s provisions. Any additional supplies that they needed — bandages, medication, clothing, soap, tobacco — had to be bought from the “slop chest,” or the company store. If whalemen bought too many items or took too many advances, they might exceed their take and end up owing money at the end of a voyage!
Seaman poses with wife and two daughters onboard.
The Gomes family aboard a whaleship. Gomes was first mate — his family was visiting the ship before it set off. Photo courtesy: New Bedford Whaling Museum
Diversity Onboard
As New Bedford grew to become the world’s largest whaling port, the workforce was increasingly comprised of men from farming and laboring backgrounds. That included men whose options on shore were limited because of their race or background, and immigrants who often landed in New Bedford aboard vessels they had crewed.

The community found aboard Yankee whaleships was not replicated anywhere else in America in the 19th century. Men of African ancestry and Native Americans served side-by-side with men whose families had originated in Europe. Pay was based on shipboard position, and opportunities for advancement were largely based on merit and experience.

Women on Whaleships
By the middle of the 19th century, whale populations had declined. Whaling expeditions grew longer as New Bedford vessels expanded their hunting grounds to the Pacific and Arctic oceans. By 1851, voyages averaged 46 months, which became a hardship on married whalemen.

Although most of the men onboard were young and single, most captains were married. Eventually, vessel owners allowed captains to bring their families with them on long voyages. By 1853, there was a captain’s wife on one in five whaleships from New England. A ship with a woman onboard was often called a “hen frigate.”

Captains could bring their families, but they were expected to reimburse the ship’s owners for provisions and lodging ($1,000 per voyage in 1895). Onboard, women did laundry, cooked, sewed, wrote, and read. The only whaling task women were allowed to do was call out, “There she blows!”

Beyond the walls of the ship, the captains' wives sought company from the wives of other captains in chance meetings at sea. During these "gams," the women would exchange information, books, and presents. Like the whalemen, these women also encountered people, cultural practices, natural phenomena, and animal and plants at exotic locales that most Americans could only read about.

Before whaleships headed into the Arctic or Antarctic, some female mariners would get off at resupply ports such as the Hawaiian archipelago or southwest coast of Australia. Among others like themselves, they attempted to recreate their New England world with Protestant churches, missionary activities, and shore communities.
Black-and-white photo: wave comes over the side of the ship.
Deck awash (1931). Photo courtesy: New Bedford Whaling Museum
Left, men stand in line with bowls in hand; right, man sews a sail while sitting on deck.
Left, crew of a whaling vessel waiting for grub; right, a whaleman, seated on a sea chest, sews strips of old sails together. Photos courtesy: New Bedford Whaling Museum
Left, one man gives another a haircut onboard; right, three men  pose onboard a ship.
Left, Don Waters cuts Ray Buckley's hair; right, three men on the deck of the schooner John R. Manta. Photos courtesy: New Bedford Whaling Museum

Last updated: December 19, 2018

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