Whale line

The harpoon was fundamental to whale fisheries worldwide. Harpoons have been utilized for over a thousand years to capture whales and large fish. The Basques, around 900 A.D., were among the earliest known whalers. Their word "arpoi," meaning to fasten or hold, evolved into "arpon" in Spanish and "harpoon," or "harping iron," in English.

The harpoon, often referred to by whalemen as the "iron," was primarily designed to attach to the whale, serving as a hook to secure the whale to the whaleboat. It was generally not intended to kill the whale, except in some experimental designs. Killing was accomplished with a lance. Since the harpoon was crucial to the success of a whaling voyage and the whaling industry as a whole, it became the focus of efforts to improve whaling technology.

The need for a better harpoon was clear. Even when thrown correctly, it could easily pull out, resulting in the loss of a whale. To increase the chances of retaining a struck whale, two harpoons were always attached to the whale line. The harpooner would try to dart the second iron immediately after the first. If circumstances prevented this, the second iron was thrown overboard to trail behind the whale, out of the way. The harpooner, also known as the boat steerer, would switch places in the whaleboat with the mate, who was the boat header, and then steer the boat while the officer lanced the whale. Only officers were permitted to lance a whale.

The number of harpoons carried on a whaler highlighted the need for improvement. In 1856, the inventory for the Bark Louisa included 84 common harpoons (both two-flue and single-flue) and 100 toggle irons. Typically, an average of 27 sperm whales might be expected on a four-year voyage. This meant 184 harpoons were needed to capture 27 whales, or about 7 harpoons per whale, with the second iron being reused. Improvement was clearly necessary. In "The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States" by George Brown Goode, published in Washington, 1887, page 251, it is noted:

"To convey some idea of the magnitude of the harpoon trade, I should say that the books of Mr. James Durfee, the veteran harpoon-maker of New Bedford, show that from 1828 to 1868 inclusive, he made and sold 58,517 harpoons. Of this number 45,103 were the old-fashioned irons, including both the double and single barbed, and the remainder were the improved toggle-irons. We should also take into consideration that during this time there were about eight or ten harpoon-makers at work in New Bedford."

Three primary types of hand-darted harpoons were essential to the whaling industry: the two-flued iron, the single-flued iron, and the toggle iron. The two-flued and single-flued irons were often collectively referred to as "common irons." Over the years, preferences for harpoon types evolved, as evidenced in the records of Swift and Allen, agents for the Bark Louisa of New Bedford. The summary below illustrates the number of each type of harpoon carried on voyages starting in 1850 when the Louisa was purchased from Baltimore.

Year of sailing









 Common Irons



 Two Flue






 Single Flue













The toggle iron appears to have been tested during the 1853 voyage and deemed successful, as subsequent voyages primarily carried toggle irons. Consequently, the number of common irons decreased, though they continued to be used throughout the nineteenth century. On the Louisa, the two-flue iron seemed to be slightly preferred over the single-flue iron, but this preference varied on other vessels.

Hand-darted harpoons were mounted on large poles, usually made from hickory, oak, or other hardwood saplings. These poles, called iron poles, were prepared on board the whaleship just before they were needed. The poles were heavy to provide momentum to the darted iron and were left rough, with the bark on, to provide a goodMounting grip and avoid a smooth finish. They were typically five to six feet long and two or more inches in diameter, with the forward end pointed to fit into the socket of a harpoon. The pole was tightly wedged into the socket to prevent it from coming loose easily. Usually, a double hitch was tied around the socket of the iron using a short length of line, and the other end was tied around the windlass. The butt end of the pole rested against a solid support. Pressing down on the pole would draw the iron socket back over the pointed end of the pole, forcing the socket on tightly. The socket seam expanded to ensure a very tight fit. No screws, pins, or nails were used to secure the harpoon socket. The pole was designed to pull out after the whale was struck. The socket was wrapped with marline to prevent the whale line from chafing.Short warp attachment

To complete the harpoon assembly, a short length of line called the "iron strap" was tied to it, typically secured around the shank or iron shaft with a double hitch and splice to prevent it from sliding off the socket.

Author's collection.

The iron strap was laid along the pole and stopped, or tied, to it at two points with light line, ending in an eye splice made slightly forward of the butt end of the pole. The whale line, or "main warp," was tied to the splice of the first iron with a bowline. The second iron was hitched with a "short warp," the after end of which was loosely tied around the main warp with a bowline.

The whale line was a loose-laid rope of three strands, with a two-inch circumference, specially designed to be both pliable and strong. Initially made from Russian hemp, it was lightly tarred to prevent rot until manila began to be imported into the United States around 1830.

Whale line was produced by several small rope walks in whaling ports, but increasingly by the Plymouth Cordage Company and, from 1842 onwards, the New Bedford Cordage Company. Plymouth's whale line consisted of thirteen yarns per strand, while New Bedford's, using a lighter fiber, used fifteen yarns per strand. Both types of whale lines could bear a tensile load of approximately 6,000 pounds. During production, the ropes were lubricated—typically with whale oil, animal tallow, and other substances—to prevent internal chafing.

Coiling whale lineThe length of the rope walk where the whale line was made limited each line to 75 fathoms (450 feet). Whale line was sold in packages containing two coiled lengths. On the whaleship, these pieces were spliced together to form the required length, and after removing all kinks and twists, it was carefully laid in wooden line tubs in Flemish coils to ensure it could run out smoothly. After 1850, when whaleboats carried two line tubs, the larger tub held 225 fathoms (three 75-fathom lengths spliced together), while the smaller tub held a single 75-fathom length. Both ends of the line hung outside the tub so the smaller length could be tied off if the 225 fathoms were insufficient.

The line from the large tub ran aft to the stern of the whaleboat, took two turns around the loggerhead, then passed forward over the oars and through the chocks at the bow. Ten to twenty fathoms of line were coiled at the bow, and the end was tied with a bowline to the iron strap as described earlier. The short warp of the second iron was loosely tied around the main warp with a bowline.

The complete harpoon was darted directly into the whale when the bow of the whaleboat came close to or onto the whale's back, "wood to blackskin." While a harpoon was typically pushed into the whale, it could be darted up to three fathoms (eighteen feet) if the boat couldn’t get closer. Blubber was tough to penetrate, and a long dart might not embed deeply enough to hold fast.

Once the harpoon was darted and fully penetrated, the whale would start to run, creating tension on the whale line. This tension caused the barbs of the harpoon to catch in the whale’s flesh, acting as a hook or anchor to secure the harpoon.

The harpoon pole usually functioned as a lever, forcing a bend in the harpoon's shank near the socket. This effect was described by Jacob A. Hazen, who sailed on the Ship Hudson of Sag Harbor in 1837:

"When the iron is struck into a whale, the hand-pole is mostly in an upright position, but as the fish darts away and a strain is permitted to rest on the loggerhead, the pole is drawn over and the shank being the weakest part of the instrument bends down lengthwise with the whale. In this position it would be next to impossible for the iron to draw out."

After darting, the pole served no further purpose and, if not shaken loose, might even hinder the process. In 1820, the renowned English whaleman William Scoresby noted that after darting, the pole

""... is liable to be disengaged soon afterwards; on which the harpoon, relieved from the shake and twist of this no longer necessary appendage, maintains its hold with better effect.""

Detaching the pole from the harpoon after darting was a crucial feature, and two United States patents for harpoons detailed methods to achieve this.

Various types of harpoons were developed in the pursuit of an optimal design; many were complete failures, while others offered improvements that contributed to the overall evolution of this vital piece of whalecraft.

Click on a harpoon type for more information specific to that type:

Two Flue Irons / Single Flue Irons / Toggle Irons

© Website originally created by Thomas G. Lytle.

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