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A modern copy of a traditional whaleboat on display at Mystic Seaport. Another whaleboat, on the davits of a larger ship, is reflected in the water.

A whaleboat or whaler is a type of open boat that is relatively narrow and pointed at both ends, enabling it to move either forwards or backwards equally well. It was originally developed for whaling, and later became popular for work along beaches, since it does not need to be turned around for beaching or refloating. The term "whaleboat" may be used informally of larger whalers, or of a boat used for whale watching.

Modern applications

Today whaleboats are used as safety vessels aboard marine vessels. The United States Coast Guard has been using them since 1791. Their simple open structure allows for easy access and personnel loading in the event of an emergency. These whaleboats are now considered very important, and highly regimented safety vessels. Boats must include a hatchet, lifeboat compass, lifeboat sea anchor, emergency signal mirror, emergency drinking water, lifeboat first aid kit, jack knife with can opener, lifeboat bilge pump,and emergency provisions. On modern warships, a relatively light and seaworthy boat for transport of ship's crew may be referred to as a whaleboat or whaler. It may also refer to a type of vessel designed as a lifeboat or "monomoy" used for recreational and competitive rowing in the San Francisco Bay Area and coastal Massachusetts.

Uses in war

Whaleboats were also extensively used in warfare. Colonel Benjamin Church is credited with first pioneering their use for amphibious combat operations against Abenaki and Mi'kmaq tribes in what is today Maine and Acadia . His troops, New England colonial forces and Native allies from southern New England, used them as early as 1696 (during King William's War). Others in the Northeastern borderlands followed suit and they were utilized throughout the imperial conflicts of the early 18th century, and extensively used by both British and colonial troops during the French and Indian war. Units that made extensive use of whaleboats were the 7th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment at the siege of Louisburg in 1745, often referred to as "the whaleboat regiment," and Gorham's Rangers, formed in 1744, initially a company of Indians mainly from Cape Cod, many of whom were employed as whalers, and which later evolved into a British Army ranger company in the 1750s and 1760s.[1] John Bradstreet's Bateaux and Transport service,[2] a corps of armed boatmen tasked with moving supplies on inland waterways during the French and Indian War also used whaleboats extensively. In 1772, American colonials used whaleboats to attack and destroy the Gaspee in Narragansett Bay. During the American Revolutionary War, there were many whaleboat raids, including one with 230 men led by Return J. Meigs, Sr. to sack Sag Harbor on Long Island in 1777. On December 7, 1782, two fleets of whaleboats fought a bloody battle on Long Island Sound known as the Boats Fight. During the desperate hand-to-hand conflict, every man involved was either killed or injured.[citation needed]


The whaleboat's design takes after those the Vikings used during the 11th century, around the time Beowulf was written and Leif Erickson came to America briefly. As a whaling vessel, it fulfilled its purposes for what it went through and its “superior handling characteristics soon made it a popular general-purpose ship’s boat”.[3] The whaleboat generally is outfitted with a dismountable sail post for sailing across seas, but in close proximity, they can use oars for rapid rowing to nearby areas with a large rowing crew. The basics of the whaleboat consists of a rudder, main sail, and occasionally a jib. Without the rudder, the boat would have no steering capabilities, and without the sails, the vessel would have no propulsion, assuming there were no oars or a sizable rowing crew to compensate for the lack of propulsion. After 1850 most were fitted with a centreboard that would keep the boat from swaying too far to one side or another, located in the center of the boat. The main sail would catch the wind, which would in turn push the sail, pushing the boat in the process, and the rudder, depending on the direction the person manning it pointed it at, would push the stern of the boat in a certain direction, steering the whaleboat essentially. The rudder consists of basically two parts: the part that sticks in the water in order to give thrust, and the part the coxswain, or the person steering, holds onto in order to push or pull the first part. The jib sail is a significantly smaller sail that serves to help steer and propel the boat forward as well. By catching the wind at a specific angle, the sail can either double as a second main sail catching the wind, or help by adding “better close-hauled sailing and of setting extra sail with comparatively little labor demand” [3]


Whaleboats became prevalent in ancient Inuit and Yupik culture when trade and other forms of nutrition were sparse. Whaleboats gave them a means of travelling to distant places in order to obtain resources. Natives had to gather sustenance, generally large game such as whales, when at all possible, from the sea. Whaleboats were not always taken out to sea to hunt whales, but they could also be used to transport dead whales that they had scavenged from the shallow waters. Whaleboats used in whaling had a stout post mounted on the aft deck, around which the steersman would cinch the rope once the whale had been harpooned, and by which the whale would drag the boat until it was killed. Large baleen and bow heads whales became their main export to Europe and the Americas, which in turn would help in revitalizing the trade in their region, an area that ranged from the Bering-Chukchi Sea to eastern Arctic.[3]

Norwegians began to dominate whaling when they turned it into a full-blown industry in 1904. They were more skilled and had better techniques than other civilizations around this same time period. The Norwegians had very efficient gunners, men who fired the weapons, the technology of the Sven Foyn gun and the grenade harpoon, and they utilized the powered whale catcher. Although all these factors were effective and sped trade, the demand of oil was its own issue. Whales were mainly used for their fat that was melted to oil. The Norwegians had a system[clarification needed] in place and partnered with the British to profit. The simple whale boat received a number of modifications throughout this period. What was once a simple single hull, open boat became a body of new technologies to make whaling more efficient. Changes included the use of radar and radio instead of a lookout and new handling tools.[3](Tonneson and Johnson, 798)

See also

  • Pequod
  • Whaler (a ship used for whaling, often carrying whaleboats)
  • Whaling
  • RHIB (a boat detached to major naval units with the same function of a whaleboat)


  1. Brian D. Carroll, " 'Savages' in the Service of Empire: New England Indians in Gorham's Rangers, 1744-1762," New England Quarterly 85, no. 3 (September 2012): 383-429.
  2. Joseph F. Meany, Jr., “Bateaux and ‘Battoe Men’: An American Colonial Response to the Problem of Logistics in Mountain Warfare,” New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center <http://dmna.ny.gov/historic/articles/bateau.htm> Accessed July 5, 2013.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 "whaleboat" In Encyclopedia Britannica, Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/641443/whaleboat, January 1-December 31, 2013. Retrieved on 2014-4-11 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "IMB" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "IMB" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "IMB" defined multiple times with different content
  • Johan Nicolay Tønnessen, Arne Odd Johnsen. (1982). The History of Modern Whaling. University of California Press
  • Vincent, M. (1998). Ancient whaler. Canadian Geographic, 118(7), 55.
  • whaleboat. (2014). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/641443/whaleboat
  • jib. (2014). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/303769/jib
  • Vincent, M. (1998). Ancient whaler. Canadian Geographic, 118(7), 55.
  • WHITRIDGE, P. (1999). The prehistory of inuit and yupik whale use. Revista De Arqueología Americana, 99-154.
  • Dow, George Francis. (1985). Whale Ships and Whaling. Dover Publications
  • Johan Nicolay Tønnessen, Arne Odd Johnsen. (1982). The History of Modern Whaling. University of California Press
  • United States Coast Guard. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, (2013). Lifeboat history. Retrieved from USCG website: http://www.uscg.mil/d1/stachatham/Lifeboat History.asp
  • United States Coast Guard. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, (2013). Lifeboat and liferaft survival equipment. Retrieved from USCG website: http://www.uscg.mil/hq/cg5/cg5214/survivalequip.asp
  • picture accredited to BotMultichillT; Weis, C. (Photographer). (2009, August 17). US Navy 090818-N-0167W-042 USS Constitution crewmember Boatswains Mate 2nd Class Garrett Renner guides a team of Navy chief selects in the port whaleboat of USS Constitution [Web Photo]. Retrieved from [1]

External links

  • Whaleboat, an award winning scaled replica of a traditional whaleboat