A Brief Summary of Capturing and Processing a Whale in the American Whale Fisheries, Indicating the Whalecraft Used.

The Whale Fishery "Laying On," N. Currier, 1852

HARPOON: When a whale was sighted, the whaleboats were cleared away. The six-man crew in the boat chased the whale hoping to harpoon it just after it surfaced. At this point the whale could not dive again until it "had his spoutings out" or enriched its blood supply with oxygen for another hour-long dive. Often the crew had to wait for the whale to rise. When the whaleboat approached close enough to the whale, within three fathoms, but preferably "wood to blackskin", the harpoon was darted. It was not thrown like a spear, but was more or less pushed into the whale. If necessary, a harpoon could be darted a maximum of three fathoms, or eighteen feet. If at all possible, the second harpoon was also darted. The short warp of this second iron was attached loosely around the main warp by a bowline. If it was not possible to dart the second iron, it was tossed overboard to trail out of the way. The first iron was always a new harpoon, while the second iron was usually one that had been used once and straightened out by the ship's blacksmith or cooper.

SHOULDER GUNS, HARPOONS & BOMB LANCES: In later years, after 1846, shoulder guns were introduced that could fire a special gun harpoon into the whale. These were not very effective because the harpoon trailing the heavy whale line never flew straight and was quite likely to hit the whale broadside, if it hit it at all. One account of a witness to a demonstration of a new gun harpoon said that when the harpoon was fired, "The whale is the safest creature in or on the ocean." The maximum weight of the projectile for a shoulder gun was approximately 3 lbs, limited by the gun's recoil. The guns weighed more than 20 lbs to absorb much of the recoil.

SWIVEL GUNS & IRONS: Swivel guns were introduced in the early 1700's, but were not practical. On later voyages, in the later 1800's, a heavy swivel gun was mounted in the bow of the whaleboat. A popular gun was called the Greener gun, invented and manufactured by William Greener of Birmingham, England. These guns fired large, heavy harpoons into the whale at a greater distance than was possible with a hand darted harpoon. These guns could also fire a large bomb lance into the whale. The Greener gun allowed a much heavier projectile than a shoulder gun. They had one drawback; the excessive recoil was transmitted to the relatively weak structure of the whaleboat. Swivel guns were intended to overcome problems of approaching whales in ice fields and to capture whales that could not be easily approachd.

DARTING GUNS: After about 1870 darting guns became popular. This implement, mounted on a standard iron pole, planted the harpoon in the whale and simultaneously fired a bomb lance to kill it. It was darted in the same manner as the hand harpoon, and the bomb lance was to replace hand lancing. The darting gun iron had a tapered end of the shaft in place of the socket; this fit into lugs on the darting gun and allowed easy detachment after darting. The iron also had an iron loop forge welded to the shank just forward of the tapered iron tang. The loop was for attaching the whaleline.

LANCE: After the whale ran and tired somewhat, the crew hauled on the whale line fastened to the harpoon to pull the whaleboat up to the whale. The mate, who had been heading the boat and who gave directions to the crew to this point, changed positions with the harpooner who then became the boatsteerer. Only the mate could lance the whale. The lance was longer than a harpoon so it could reach the whale's "life" or large reservoir that held the blood enriched with oxygen for a long dive. The life was located near the lungs. When the lance entered this area it was churned to cut as much of the area as possible. The blood filled the whale's lungs and when he then spouted, he spouted red blood. The whalemen said the whale's "chimney was afire" and this indicated that the lancing was effective and the whale would soon die.

BOAT SPADE: The whale was secured to the whaleboat with a length of whale line tied around the whales flukes, or tail, or through holes cut in the whale with a small boat spade. The whale was always towed tail first back to the whaleship. The whale was then tied alongside the whaleship with a fluke chain, flukes forward, on the starboard side.

CUTTING SPADES and BLUBBER HOOK: A cutting-in stage made of planks was suspended above the whale so the officers could be positioned above the carcass to strip the blubber off. First a man would cut a hole in the blubber near the head and fin. Blubber was stripped by cutting scarfs in the blubber with cutting spades mounted on long poles, about 15 to 20 feet long. A huge blubber hook suspended from the mast was inserted into the hole first cut in the blubber with the cutting spade. The line from the mast to the hook passed between the cutting-in stage and the hull. A strain was then applied to the hook by means of the ship's windlass, and the officers on the stage cut the blubber with cutting spades. The cut was made around the hook and then in parallel lines so as to form a six-foot wide strip of blubber to be peeled off. The blubber hook pulled the blubber up while the officers kept cutting and the whale rolled over in the water as the blanket piece was hauled up. Only officers could "cut on a whale."

BOARDING KNIFE: When the hook had been hoisted up as far as it could go, known as "two blocks" when the two pulleys (blocks) came together, a new hole was cut in the blanket piece below the hook. This was usually done with a boarding knife from the deck. The boarding knife was a two edged sword-like blade mounted on a wood handle. Another hook, or more likely a wooden toggle, was put through the second hole and a strain applied to the line that secured it. There were two systems of blocks and tackle for raising the blanket pieces. Once the blanket was secured by the second system, the blanket was cut off above the second hook or toggle, and the now freely hanging blanket piece was swung inboard and dropped to the deck. This was known as boarding the blanket and the cut was made with a boarding knife.

BLUBBER ROOM SPADES: While the officers on the cutting stage continued to strip the blubber with their cutting-in spades, the blanket piece on the deck had to be cut up into smaller pieces that were small enough to handle. This could be done on deck, but that was not too easy because there was a lot of other activity on deck, and the huge blanket piece would slide around with the motion of the ship. The blanket piece was therefore lowered into a hold, called the blubber room. There, using spades on short poles called blubber room spades, the blanket piece was cut into smaller horse pieces. Horse pieces were six feet long (the width of the blanket piece), one foot wide and approximately ten inches thick. These horse pieces were tossed up to the deck with a blubber fork, and then went to the mincing horse.

MINCING KNIFE: The mincing horse was made up of planks over a wooden tub. One man would grab the horse piece with a small hand hook and pull it across the plank of the mincing horse. It was placed on the plank with the black skin side down. As it moved along, another man sliced it into thin slices to make it easier to boil out the oil. He sliced it with a two-handled mincing knife in a slicing motion that cut the blubber to the black skin, but not through it. This horse piece so minced, or sliced, was called a "book" or "bible leaves."

LEANING KNIFE: Usually there was a small amount of flesh, "lean," adhering to the blubber. If not trimmed off, the oil would become dark and would not demand as high a price. Therefore, part of the job of the blubber room gang was to cut these bits of flesh (lean) off the horse pieces using leaning knives. Leaning knives were also used to mince the blubber of blackfish and other such small whales.

TRYPOTS: The bible leaves were taken to the huge cast iron trypots positioned forward on the deck. They were pitched into the trypots using a blubber fork. The trypots, normally two of them side by side in a large brickwork structure, were heated by burning tried-out scraps from a previous whale. These scraps burned with a hot flame. Each trypot held a few hundred gallons of oil.

BLUBBER FORK: Bible leaves were thrown into the trypots with a blubber fork or blubber pike and heated until the whale oil tried out from them, much like the grease coming from bacon as it cooks. Care had to be taken not to burn the oil, but to be certain that all oil was extracted from the bible leaves.

POT SPADE: The trypots were stirred constantly with a pot spade, usually a small spade ground down by repeated sharpening and now useless for cutting because the blade became too narrow. This pot spade was also used to scrape off any small pieces that might cling to the inside of the pots.

BLUBBER PIKE: The bible leaves were pushed around and lifted from the trypots with a blubber pike. The pike also was used to remove burned out scraps from the fire under the trypots, and as a fire poker.

SKIMMER: When the bible leaves contained no more oil they were taken from the tryot with a skimmer that removed the fritters but allowed the oil to drain back into the pots. The skimmer had a long shank and was mounted on a long wood pole. It was a large, copper, shallow dish with perforations to allow the oil to drain back into the trypots.

BAILER: The oil in the trypots was taken out with a large ladle called a bailer and poured into copper cooling tanks secured alongside the brick tryworks. After sufficient cooling, the whale oil was transferred to wooden barrels for storage below decks.

Back to top of this page

Back to Main Menu

Bibliography  Harpoons  History  Knives  Lances  Links  Markings  Non-Whaling

Patents  Poison  Processing  Shoulder-Guns  Shoulder-gun Irons  Spades  Swivel Guns and Irons

©: 2000 - 2008Thomas G. Lytle
. All rights reserved