The whaleboat was designed to be a working craft. But she had beauty and speed in her lines, and was the best sea boat ever built. Over two generations ago proud whalemen decided to test the speed of their craft. The result was a series of famous whaleboat races that stirred the hearts of seafaring New Engenders in the late nineteenth century.
The spiritual mother of the whale-boat was the Indian canoe. Unlike most boats intended to be fast, the whaleboat's capability for speed was only one of its many superb characteristics. The whaleboat was a double-ender, with both ends sharp. Her length was from 28 to 30 feet, the beam 5½ feet and the weight from 500 to 600 pounds; she carried a crew of six men who together weighed a thousand pounds more.
Clifford W. Ashley, a New Bedford artist who went whaling, described whaleboats in accents of loving admiration: "A whaleboat had no deadwood aft, as this would interfere with quick turning. There was a very pronounced sheer and the 'run' (afterbody) was considerably finer than the 'entrance' (forward end)."
The timbers were of thin, steamed and bent white oak, the planks of white cedar, the ceiling, thwarts and platforms of white pine. For its size and strength, the whaleboat was lithe and light, built so because even the heaviest boat would be smashed as easily by a whale's flukes—this being so, the proper thing was to seek maneuverability, swiftness, and all-round capability in the open sea.
November 9, 1959
One of the crew of six was the boat-header, referred to as the captain in the whaleboat races, who stood in the stern and steered with an oar from 20 to 23 feet long. The longest oars in sea duty were those of the whaleboat, and of these the steering oar was longest by two to five feet.
The five oarsmen sat one to each thwart, and each sat not in the middle but at the full width of the boat from his rowlock. This arrangement was necessary for the balance of the rowing and increased the finesse with which the boat could be handled. One long oar (18 feet) and two short (16 feet) oars were pulled on one side against two medium-length oars (17 feet) on the other. Usually the three were on the starboard side. The business of rowing in a whaleboat was complicated for green hands by the fact that they could lift their oars only with effort and discomfort.
The first of what may be termed an historic sequence of whaleboat races took place on July 4, 1875 in New Bedford. New Bedford was the great whaling center, and the ports of Edgartown and Vineyard Haven on the island of Martha's Vineyard, though distinctly secondary, had produced an amazing number of successful whalemen. The necessary germ of rivalry lay here, and it happened that the newly fashionable summer resort of Oak Bluffs offered a deep-water course, with open sea conditions parallel to high ground ashore and in full view of the multitudes.
THEY ALL CAME
No whalemen up to then had imagined a whaleboat named Laetitia, but here was one, and from Quaker New Bedford; here too were the Marengo, painted purple; Squid, yellow; and from Fairhaven, the town across the river from New Bedford, Black Fiend, painted, of course, black.
There were eight entries, and the Martha's Vineyard boat had been named in perverse humor Last of All. Prizes were posted in the amounts of $50, $25, $15, and $10, and the course was two miles around a stake boat to the starting line. Along the bluffs the spectators chattered and yelled until the shore of Vineyard Sound became as noisy as a ball game.
The gallery that day was augmented by a notable spectator fleet that included the immortal cup yacht America, General Benjamin Franklin Butler, owner, and the sloop Maggie B., Charles S. Stratton, better known as General Tom Thumb, owner. Tom Thumb, about 3 feet tall, paced the deck of his yacht, and Ben Butler, considerably taller, stood under the Chinese lanterns that decorated the America from boom end to bowsprit.
A pistol shot punctured the air and the whaleboats were off. That is, all were off except the Vineyard boat, the crew of which were engaged in an argument. The cause of the dispute is lost in history's maze. But it was settled when Isaac Norton, a young man raised on a farm, got into the boat and took the deadly midship (long) oar. Off went the late starter in the wake of the others.
A NEAR MISS FOR VINEYARD
In a little while the Vineyard boat passed the Squid, then she shot by the coy Laetitia. She had little trouble getting by Black Fiend, Marengo and Currier, but it took more pulling to overtake Winder. After the turn around the stake boat an unfavorable wind and strong head tide made the going more rugged. At the finish line, Sixth Ward, the strong favorite, led with elapsed time of 20 minutes 30 seconds. The Vineyard entry finished with a time of 22 minutes 30 seconds—only 10 seconds ahead of Winder. The trailing whaleboats took 25 minutes for the course.
There was so much honest thrill in this contest and others that followed, and so beautiful a combination of strength, endurance and skill, that whaleboat racing seemed marked for a brilliant future. When a race was scheduled at the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia in early September 1876, the new sport suddenly hove into national prominence.
Elaborate preparations were made and three New Bedford crews went down to Philadelphia. The Sixth Ward outfit wore white shirts and blue pantaloons, the shirts of the Centennials were also white, and those of the Vestas were blue. All oarsmen wore white handkerchiefs about their heads, and the boatheaders donned fancy turbans and body sashes. If those costumes sound a bit gaudy for the strong men of whaling it may be recalled that one New Bedford whale ship, embarking on a long Pacific voyage, drifted out into the stream to the gay music of Pinafore played by a band on the dock. The captain's wife was aboard.
There were 35,671 paid admissions to the exposition that day, and contemporary reports say that the big crowds lining the Schuylkill River were in a state of excitement. The first start of the New Bedford crews was a bad one, but they were recalled and got off the second time in good shape. Cries were heard of "Whale ahead!" and "There she blows!"
The Sixth Ward worked ahead by half a length; then the Centennial crew drew even. Vesta pulled up, and the race was anybody's. Centennial rounded the flagboat first, followed by Sixth Ward and Vesta. Vesta finally gained a length and held this lead until the finish, making a time of 25 minutes and 51 seconds for a distance that was not recorded in press dispatches.
The Vesta men got $100. The others got nothing. This was a cause for dissatisfaction, and in general the outcome seemed indecisive. The race had been a good show, but the waters of the Schuylkill, lacking salt, were not a proper fluid for whale-boats. Perhaps, too, the whaleboats were not set off enough from the other fair attractions, such as the Centennial chimes, silkworms, Egyptian mummy, electromagnetic orchestra and kiosk of stuffed birds.
While the New Bedford crews were racing, Ike Norton, the young Vineyard man, went to see Uriah Morse, one of the great whaleboat builders. Norton ordered a fast whaleboat from Morse, one that could be used for racing. As Norton told Morse, the boat would never have to go to the Pacific in search of whales. Morse observed all the rules, but he built into his whaleboat his own mystery of speed. He produced a masterpiece. It bore the appropriate name, Oak Bluffs.
In August 1877, the first great test for the Oak Bluffs came. The Sixth Ward, cocky despite the upset at Philadelphia the previous September, was back to race at Oak Bluffs. Here also appeared the Sixth Ward Jr., and two entries representing the Vineyard, Norton's Oak Bluffs and the Yankee.
At the signal, off went the Sixth Ward, taking a good lead, as expected. But in about a quarter of a mile Oak Bluffs drew even. For all of three minutes the two whaleboats fought it out, beam on beam. Then Oak Bluffs shot out front and stayed out front for the rest of the course. Ike Norton held the long steering oar under his armpit and, leaning over, added his weight and strength to the after oar. He and his boys were not only without fancy shirts, but they raced, as always, in their bare feet.
The course for this race measured two miles and a half, and the sea was rough. The winning time was 24 minutes 50 seconds; Sixth Ward, in second place, had been able to chop off only 27 minutes 55 seconds.
The margin by which the famous Sixth Ward had been beaten was sensational, and many a longshore expert scrutinized the new whaleboat Uriah Morse had built for Ike and his boys. But no one could discover any deviation from the standard design and construction of an able whaleboat. She was regulation in all respects—so far as any eye could see.
THE UNSEEN SECRET
What couldn't be seen was this: Uriah Morse had made the thwarts of oak and he had put no supports under them. When the oarsmen pulled, an irresistible collective force was transmitted to those oaken thwarts. They yielded, they sprang, they gave a little, and in doing so they pulled in the sides of the boat just enough to make the whaleboat a trifle more slender and more like her spiritual mother, the Indian canoe.
After Ike Norton beat the Sixth Warders again the next summer, their rivalry was then directed toward the Fourth of July races on the Acushnet River at New Bedford, which would open the 1879 season. Ike Norton's boys rowed their craft to the city, and tradition recounts that they left the Vineyard dock later than the steamboat, overtook her and rowed ahead of her all the way, a distance of almost 25 miles. It helped some that they did not have to observe channel buoys.
The sea that July Fourth was rough, even in the Acushnet, and the start of other classes in the regatta was postponed for more favorable conditions. This gave the whaleboats a rightful priority. They could not be stopped by anything in the weather line. But the Sixth Ward and Sixth Ward Jr. demanded that the prize money be divided $30 and $20 instead of $40 and $10. This is the objection that stands in the record, but the loud whisper of history is that nobody wanted to row against Ike Norton's boat again.
The authorities stuck to the original rules, so Norton and his boys prepared to row the course alone. They rubbed the outside planking of their craft with black lead and let her delicately from a float into the water. Oars dipped. They were away. As the rowers warmed up, they tossed their coats and shirts into the bow; but three strokes later all these garments were in the stern. The boat lifted right out of the water as they pulled her through the seas.
In practice sometimes, Ike's brother Cyrus had broken an oar, and Ike cautioned from time to time, "Don't break your oar, Cyse!" Now, as the champion whaleboat from Oak Bluffs crossed the finish line after making, in that day's heavy seas, the fastest time ever known at New Bedford, Ike called out, "Break your oar, Cyse!" And Cyrus dipped the blade once again before the eyes of all that multitude, and the long midship oar was snapped apart in two places.
The time—two miles in 17 minutes and 18 seconds—stands as a record for the New Bedford course, and it is unlikely that better time has ever been made for so long a distance under rugged sea conditions. There have never been any whaleboat races to amount to anything since, partly because the school of men who pulled those mighty oars either died off or forgot about whaling, and partly because nobody believed any crew could make a whaleboat go faster than Ike Norton and his champions did on that Fourth of July. Such was the victory and such was the end of the great whaleboat races.