A 19th-century whaler sailed the ocean alone, set apart from the rest of the world.
A crew never knew where the hunt would take them. Big bowhead whales, the ones that would bring in large profits, often inhabited the icy waters of the Arctic. The crew tried to stay busy keeping the ship clean, maintaining their tools, and practicing how to lower and man the 30-foot-long whaleboats. But as the ship sailed the oceans, the men also endured long periods of waiting and hoping to catch sight of a whale. If they did see another ship, the two crews might participate in a gam, or a social get-together. After months at sea, visiting with other ships was a way to share news about home and information about whale sightings. Once a whale was sighted, however, there was plenty to do.
One afternoon in January 1851, 18-year-old Nelson Haley was a long way from home. The ship for which he had signed articles of employment, the Charles W. Morgan, had sailed from New Bedford, Massachusetts, six months earlier. It had reached the waters of New Zealand, hoping to find whales, sperm whales in particular. Despite his age, Haley was an experienced whale man. He had already sailed on one voyage, and he had been hired on as one of the Morgan’s harpooners.
From a post on a small platform near the top of the main mast, a sailor scanned the horizon. He was keeping a lookout for any signs of whales. Suddenly, he pointed and cried out, “Thar blows!” Guided by the sailor’s information, the captain altered the direction of the ship and tried to close some of the distance between the ship and the cruising whale.
The crew quickly responded to the captain’s command to launch the three whaleboats. There was no sight of the whale once the small boats were free of the ship, however. They drifted on the ocean, waiting for the creature to resurface. Haley sat in his whaleboat’s bow (front), ready to stop rowing and grab hold of a harpoon when the moment was right. The first mate, as the boat header, rode in the stern (rear), and had the job of keeping the boat headed in the right direction. Four other sailors also sat in the boat with their oars ready.
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