"The term ‘whaleboat' properly describes boats used for hunting whales, although it has also been applied to other boats having some similar features, generally sharp ends. Whaleboats were used by the thousands aboard American whaleships in the middle of the ninetieth century and, in lesser numbers, aboard the vessels of other nations and at shore stations around the world. The whaleboat was a double ended, light, open boat with a length at that time of between twenty-seven and thirty-one feet and a beam of slightly more than one-fifth of the length. It was pulled with oars and sailed.It was a fine sea boat, not only well adapted to it’s function but also handsome. Though there were variations in lines, and construction, The general characteristics were well defined.

…The structural design of the whaleboat was well suited to its function. Whaleboats were very lightly, yet strongly built. Lightness was necessary because they had to be hoisted aboard the whaleship or launched and beached in the case of shore whaling.A twenty-eight foot boat weighted about 1,000 pounds without men or equipment. The boat has to be strong because of the racking strains of being towed by a whale or being lowered or raised in the davits in all weather. This successful combination of lightness and strength was a noteworthy feature. The boats lowered and attacked whales in the open sea, and often the pursuit and killing lasted hours. Another achievement of the builders was a design that was extremely seaworthy but still easily driven without the exhaustion of the crew.

Around whaling ports the production of whaleboats was a minor industry. In some shops they were built with incredible speed, with standard parts and assembly line techniques. The design itself was suited to fast construction: plank lines were easy, stem and stern timbers were bent on the same form, and frames were bent to the same curvature. Speed of building was a matter of economics.

Simplicity and utility in rigging and fitting out were other characteristics. Though there was considerable variety, rigs were invariably stripped to basics. One sail plan and rig for a gaff main and jib with a total of 340 square feet had no blocks and only one sheave in the entire rig. Simplicity is another lesson of the whaleboat.

While the boats were specialized for the capture of whales, not all whaling was carried on under the same conditions; hence boats varied in hull design and rig to meet the differing conditions. Arctic boats in the bowhead fishery were generally different from those in the sperm fishery. Boats used in shore whaling were often longer than those carried aboard ship. Almost all reasonable sailing rigs were used. Sail areas ranged from the diminutive spirit sail of the shore whalers of Long Island in the 1890s to the seemingly over-canvased boats found in the Azores today. Variety in types of rigs included sloops with a gaff, leg-of-mutton, spirit, and lug sails. Some used in naval service were ketch rigged. Whaleboat rigs reflect many experiments and adaptations to a variety of conditions.

The emphasis on design was always on whaling, but the boats were successfully put to many other uses as well. Whalemen used them like any other ship’s boat for carrying liberty parties, provisioning, and towing water casks out to the ship. A certain Captain Bodfish once watered his vessel by pulling two whaleboats up a river into fresh water, swamping one, and towing it down and out to the ship with the other boat. There he filled his tanks from the swamped boat.The boats could tow the whaleship out of the harbor and, if disaster befell the ship, serve as lifeboats. Among the longest and most harrowing voyages were those of the Essex’s boats, two of which sailed over two thousand miles after their ship was stove in by a whale. The greatest rescue was that of the crews of the ice-beset ships in 1871: 1200 people were saved without loss of life. Some sailors used whaleboats as a means of deserting their ship, a case in literature being Melville’s Omoo.

Others besides men in whaling used the boats. Traders south of the Line carried them for landing through the surf. Whaleboats built by Charles Beetle of New Bedford were ordered by Peary, Greely, and MacMillan for Arctic exploration, and one lone voyager, a Captain Crapo, chose a modified whaleboat for an early trans-atlantic crossing. In the early years of this century, when whaling was dying, Charles Beetle sold reconditioned New Bedford whaleboats to merchantmen for use as lifeboats, and also built smaller whaleboat-like boats for whaleboats.

…The whaleboat disappeared first in the country that did so much to develop it. It became extinct for practical reasons connected with a changing technology. The reasons for the boats’ success in their day, however, merit review. Their success resulted from observing principles and practices in design and construction that have continuing importance."

Excerpted from the introduction of,

The Whaleboat: A study of design, construction and use from 1850-1970

-by Willits D. Ansel



The earliest recorded whaleboat races in New Bedford harbor took place in 1857.  They were part of the celebration for Independence Day. The race started at Pope’s Island, went south, around Palmers Island and back to the start, a distance of about 2 ¾ miles. 

In 1857 the race was won by a whaleboat with the name of Skylark.  The winning time was 25 minutes and 5 seconds. In 1859, Independence Day was again celebrated by holding whaleboat races. The winner this year was a whaleboat called the Flying Fish.

Whaleboat races continued in the harbor until about the turn of the century. They were revived in the mid 1980s.  However, rather than using whaleboats (there were none around except those on display in the Whaling Museum), rowers used lifesaving boats borrowed from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.