May 14, 2014
Whaling Ship Charles W. Morgan Sailing From Mystic on Historic Voyage
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A Mixed Legacy
Native Americans hunted whales from shore for thousands of years. In the 1600s they taught the colonists their techniques. Soon, colonists began hunting whales in small boats that couldn't sail far from shore. Eventually they realized they could launch these small boats off of bigger seafaring vessels.
By the 1800s whale oil for lamps had became a major industry. New Bedford, Mass., where the Morgan was built and launched, was the leading whale port, but Connecticut had a strong connection to the industry. New London was a large whaling port, and in terms of number of whaling voyages launched, it trailed only San Francisco, and the Massachusetts ports of Provincetown, Nantucket, and New Bedford.
The technique for killing whales had become ruthlessly effective but, by today’s standards, still shockingly dangerous for whalemen. Large whaleships like the Morgan would travel with five or six small whaleboats on deck. When a whale was sighted these boats would be lowered into the water with six men on board. The boats would give chase to the whale, when the crew got close the harpooner would spear it with a harpoon that had a line attached to it.
"The initial attack was simply to get connected to the whale,” Stackpole explains. Then the crew of the small whaleboat would be dragged by the whale, which would often try to escape by diving. “They would be able to let out line if the whale sounded or dove [most whaleboats were equipped with about 2,000 feet of line]. If they ran out of line, they had to cut the line, because the whaleboat would be pulled under water by the whale."
Other times whales would try to escape by rushing away at great speeds.
“That was called the Nantucket sleigh ride,” Stackpole says. The process could take several hours and sometimes whaleboats would be dragged over the horizon by a whale and it would take a day or so before they reconnected with the main vessel. In the end, the whalemen would often emerge from the mighty struggle victorious.
“Whales have to come up to the surface to breathe,” Stackpole says. "Eventually the whales would get tired and need air, the whaleman knew this, so they would wait. They could tell when it was coming up because the line would go slack, then they would pull the line in and wait for the whale to come up and hope it didn’t come up right underneath them. Then they would come close to it, literally touching it, and use a long sharp lance which was designed to allow them to get to either a lung or a major artery.”
This brutal practice took its toll on the whale population, which ultimately was hunted to near extinction. The hope is that the Morgan's voyage will help bring whaling history to life again.
“It’s a human story, it’s a human endeavor. It has parts that are laudable and parts that are bad that we need to remember so that we don’t do them again,” says Stackpole. He adds that it will also be a voyage of historic discovery. “There are no color photographs or films of a whaleship under sail. Nobody’s recorded what a whaleship sounds like as you’re making sail.”