Tall Ships and Cachalots
What it was like to be a whaler on Maui
December 20, 2007
|Whaler image courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress|
In the mid-1800s the Hawaiians on Maui sang of “a forest of trees upon an unresting sea.” That unresting sea was the waters off Lahaina, the Lahaina Roadstead as it was called, and the forest was the masts of all the whaling ships anchored offshore.
Other verses tell of wild-eyed sailors with strange accents and clothing coming ashore to fill casks with water, chop wood and carouse after women. Some of the men ran off and hid rather than return to the ship. These deserters told locals much the same story:
More often than not, they hadn’t known what they were getting in for. Young men looking for adventure, they had signed on half a world away, in Nantucket or New Bedford or other ports in New England, believing that they would be off for six or seven months. Instead, they were gone for two or three years, and sometimes longer.
Others, needing money, agreed to a “blind berth.” This meant a job on a ship, any ship, its identity to be revealed later. When they were rowed out through the harbor toward a whaler, some would jump overboard and swim to shore rather than go through with it. Such was the reputation of these vessels as the era progressed.
The whaling industry in America developed on the island of Nantucket, off the coast of Massachusetts, in the early 1700s. It was essentially an oil business. Most of the prime movers and the ship owners themselves belonged to the Society of Friends or “Quakers.” Although dressing plainly and living simply, these were the Texas wildcatters and Arab sheiks of their day. Ironically, these Friends advocated the peaceful life on land while sponsoring bloody havoc at sea.
Whale oil was used for everything from the lighting of streets and homes to the lubricating of industrial machinery. But by 1800, whales in the Atlantic had been depleted to where new hunting grounds were needed.
Goaded on by increased demand, Yankee whalers ventured down the coast of South America and around Cape Horn, the storm-tossed southern tip of the Americas. By the early 1800s they had opened up the Offshore Grounds, an expanse of the Pacific Ocean stretching for thousands of miles between Peru and the Hawaiian Islands. These grounds became famous for numbers of sperm whales, the preferred whales to hunt.
The problem with the Offshore Grounds and later the Japan Grounds and others in the Pacific was that it took so long to reach them. A voyage of six months and 10 to 15 thousand miles was required just to get there.
Sometimes they had to wait weeks just to “‘round the Horn” itself. Captain Bligh, of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, tried for a month to make the passage. Tired of sleet-filled headwinds and savage seas, he turned around and made for the Pacific the “back way,” off the tip of Africa and through the Indian Ocean.
While Bounty was a Royal Navy vessel, the famous mutiny that occurred onboard was representative of the ire that was aroused in crews on such punishing journeys. Accordingly, discipline was stern, even on whalers.
As soon as the “greenies” climbed onboard for the first time, the mates often bullied, cursed and screamed to get them cracking. Striking or kicking newcomers was applied judiciously; it was designed to cause pain but not break bones, which would preclude the men from duties onboard. The aim was to whip the hodgepodge of recruits into a team as soon as possible.
One of these green hands was Frank T. Bullen, who wrote of his experiences in The Cruise of the Cachalot (“cachalot” means sperm whale). Bullen recounted his first days of tasting salt spray:
“From dawn to dusk work went on without cessation. Everything was rubbed and scrubbed and scoured until no speck of dirt could be found. Lines were coiled, irons sharpened, small boats gone over and over… some of it quite unnecessary, with the express object of preventing us of having too much leisure and consequent brooding over our unhappy lot.”
Physical prowess and fighting ability were in the job description to become a mate, even a captain, on these ships. If a seaman approached the aft deck with a pipe in his hand or a cup of tea, it was considered a sign of disrespect to the officers. He would be promptly and efficiently be “taken down” by one of the mates, which is to say, he would be smashed to the deck with bare fists.
Officers dreaded such incidents as much as the crew as they didn’t want to alienate the men. For the rigors that lay ahead, every hand was needed. Many had to perform a dozen different jobs in the course of a voyage.
Whale ships themselves were a study in versatility. They had to be three types in one: they had cruisers to navigate the distances involved, factory ships to process whales on the high seas and freighters to haul supplies first to the hunting grounds and then take the oil back.
As a result, a typical whale ship’s design was a compromise—a stubby but sturdy craft that had to put up a lot of canvas to make time. And there wasn’t much time to train the greenies on the dangers of going aloft. Farm boys would be scrambling rigging and sheeting home sails within hours of stepping on deck.
A typical seaman slept in a canvas hammock or upon a mattress stuffed with cornhusks. He bought his clothes at the “slop chest,” an onboard store that offered everything from pocketknives to boots. At mealtime, the cook would lug a wooden tub called a “kid” to the crew’s quarters. The men would grab out fistfuls of meat or beans or whatever was offered. After the fresh food was eaten up, only salted meat or hard bread were available.
While a few whales might be taken en route, these generally were preliminaries to the main event, in the Pacific. “The tide-beating heart of the earth,” Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, called it. Not only was the length of the journeys involved boggling—typically 40- to 50-thousand-mile round trips—but they were seeking some of the most massive and dangerous creatures alive.
Before over hunting depleted them, male sperms might go 75 feet and weigh 70-odd tons, larger than a tractor-trailer. Some were measured at 80 feet, which put them as long as the early whale ships themselves. In a few cases, enraged bulls turned on these ships and rammed themselves through the hulls, sinking the vessels.
After one was sighted, instead of yelling out the length, the lookout often would sing out how many barrels of oil it would produce—“Blooowww! Thar she blows! Eee’s 90 barrels, if he’s one!” for instance.
The more barrels announced, the more excitement that shivered through the men. And it wasn’t just because of the money—the more oil that was stored in casks below decks, the sooner they could all return home.
Whaleboats were lowered from the mother ship. With four rowers in the center, a boatsteerer in back and a harpooner in front, the chase was on. As quietly as possible, as they believed that sperms would spook from noise, the men rowed furiously, sometimes for miles. The boatsteerer, usually a mate, controlled the attack—with their quarry churning up the water with a tail weighing several tons just ahead, the oarsmen labored in for the kill.
William Comstock, in A Voyage to the Pacific, penned the whispered urgings on of a boatsteerer:
“Sweet mercy, this shell ain’t even movin’. St. Jerome, St. Paul, St. James. Pull, Pull. Are you all asleep? I’ll do anything for you, dear fellas. My own heart’s blood to drink. Just get us closer, closer. Pull. Let me feel his ribs, let me tickle his belly. Judas, that’s it, that’s it! [to the harpooner] Stand up now, stand up! Yahh! Give it to ‘em!”
With the harpooner bending out over the monster, a barb-tipped iron was flung into the back. Often the whale would dive or “sound” thousands of feet deep. What followed was the “Nantucket sleigh ride,” where the attached whale could yank the boat up to twenty miles an hour over the waves. This went on for hours, until it tired.
The whaleboat would close in for a second time. This time the harpooner wielded a “lance,” with a petal-shaped blade on the end. With the giant exhausted, he could take his time now and scrutinize for the “sweet spot”—a bundle of arteries deep within near the lungs. He would lunge again and again, twisting the lance with each thrust until blood and bits of gore spouted out the blowhole.
“Chimney’s afire!” he’d exclaim.
“Starn! Starn all!” would bawl the mate, and the boat would zip back out of the death zone.
As the men laid back and lit their pipes, the leviathan would thrash about, snapping its jaws and gushing the water crimson. When it finally lay still, another race was on, this time to tow it back to the ship before the “teethy denizens of the deep” swarmed the carcass.
With these flimsy craft within feet of such colossal creatures, tragedies were bound to happen. As recorded in The Cruise of the Cachalot, one oarsman was killed when a whale slashed its tail down atop the man’s head, pile driving him through the floorboards. Another died when a bull crashed over the top of him. Yet another was committed to the deep after a “fastened” sperm was fleeing and a loop of the line slipped over the man’s neck, snapping off his head.
In addition, two men died fighting each other and another deserted at the first liberty port. Such losses were keenly felt, especially since after the kill itself the real work was just beginning.
When a carcass had been towed back to the ship, planks were lowered over the side for platforms and secured by lines. While one man stood with a long pike to jab away sharks, others stripped off huge hunks of blubber. The teeth were extracted for scrimshaw and the intestines probed for a black globular substance called ambergris, which was valuable for perfume.
A fire was lit in a brick workhouse amidships and the blubber tossed into bubbling cauldrons within. This melted it down into oil. Called “trying out,” this often went on in shifts for days, depending on the size of the whale.
William Comstock described the scene:
“There is a murderous appearance about the blood-stained decks, with huge masses of flesh and blubber lying here and there, and a ferocity in the looks of the men, heightened by the fierce, red glare of the fires.”
After months at sea, the whalers would head for re-provisioning ports. Two of the most prevalent were Honolulu and Lahaina in the “Sandwich Islands,” as Hawai‘i was called then.
Maui offered no deep, protected harbor like Honolulu’s. But ships found protection from the strong northerly winds off Lahaina in the lee of the West Maui Mountains.
F.D. Bennett arrived here on a whaler in the 1830s. He described the anchorage as “an extensive and usually tranquil sheet of water.”
For Lahaina, 1846 may have been its peak; 429 whalers visited there that year. Each ship was charged $10 for anchoring, $3 for fresh water and $1 for the lighthouse. This provided good income for the town, by early Hawai‘i standards.
When they came ashore, the whale men were quite a show for the locals. Many sailors wore bell bottom trousers and horizontally striped shirts. Instead of “oil,” they pronounced it “ile.” They kept their clothes in a “chist” and taking a walk was a “random scoot.” Seemingly all of them chewed tobacco or puffed on pipes.
Their vocabulary was barely understandable, even to other Caucasians. One salt leaned back in a dentist’s chair and pointed to the roof of his mouth: “tis the aftermost grinder aloft, on the starboard quarter,” he said.
The whalers weren’t just after supplies; they also needed manpower. The natives here were renowned throughout the fleet. Called “kanakas” by the whale men, Hawaiians were known for their pleasant temperaments and excellent seamanship. Many of them were signed on as replacements.
Unlike these days, few whales existed in Hawaiian waters back then and only a smattering was killed here. The mass migrations of humpbacks we see off Maui each winter now came about in the last century or so, well after the whalers had ceased coming here. For the most part, Maui was a re-supply and liberty stop, a holiday from the slaughterings at sea. Afterwards, it was back to more months on a pitching and rolling deck.
Despite all the hardships, Frank Bullen wrote that he had developed a fondness for his ship, the Cachalot, and “our legitimate business of sperm whaling.”
After nearly three years, the Cachalot returned to New Bedford around 1870, laden with thousands of barrels of valuable oil. By that time, Bullen had been promoted to Fourth Mate.
“It was the altering experience of my lifetime,” Bullen said of the voyage. “Something I would never get over, nor ever want to.”
More often than not, these odysseys propelled ordinary men like Bullen to do extraordinary things. These were some of the epic journeys in the history of humanity. The sheer immensity of it all caused minds and imaginations to be expanded and personalities to be transformed. It was a school of hard knocks but also a type of university on the high seas, in a time when few people got past grade school.
When thousands of similar men returned to life ashore, they infused society with new energies and ideas. The collective culture progressed as a result. Beyond the profits returned to the owners, this may have enriched the burgeoning nation with something even more valuable than the blood money from whales. MTW
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