The Great Lakes Boat Building School (GLBBS) is proud, honored, and excited to have a role in the Mystic Seaport museum’s restoration of the Charles W. Morgan. Mystic Seaport is the largest and oldest maritime museum in the U.S., and is the pre-eminent institution of this nation’s maritime heritage. The Charles W. Morgan is the last remaining wooden whale ship and the oldest American commercial vessel still in existence. Built in 1841 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, she sailed on 37 voyages around the globe during an 80-year whaling career. It is a great privilege for the school to be given the opportunity to build a whaleboat for the famed Charles W. Morgan whaling ship, and thus serve our mission to preserve our rich maritime heritage.
Of the 37 voyages of the Charles W. Morgan, the longest voyage was 4 years, 11 months, and her shortest was 8½ months. Typically, the Morgan carried five whaleboats during these voyages which were stored onboard ship, hung on davits.
Lookouts onboard ship would watch for whales. Once a whale was spotted, the whaleboats were lowered into the water and were immediately off in pursuit. Onboard the whaleboat were an officer and five crewmen. The whaleboat would either be rowed or sailed to the whale, depending on weather conditions, to capture it. Once the boat was close enough, the whale would be harpooned. As it swam for its life, the whaleboat would be towed by the harpooned whale with the harpoon line securely wrapped around the boats logger head, mounted aft, and threaded forward between the oak bow chocks, mounted on the adjoining sides of the top of the stem. It could be a wild ride! When the whale eventually came to a weary rest, it was then killed and towed back to the whale ship for processing.
The whaleboat was an handsome boat that was outfitted for a brutal purpose. They were fast, specialized wooden boats that required a skilled crew, working as a team, and capable of handling long, heavy oars and a sailing rig.
The Mystic Seaport museum built the first of the eight whaleboats that are required for her re-launching in July 2013 and it’s symbolic “38th Voyage” scheduled to take place in 2014. The remaining seven are being contributed by recognized organizations from Virginia to Maine; such as the renowned Lowell’s Boat Shop in Amesbury, Mass., The Beetle Boat Shop in Wareham, Mass., The Apprenticeshop in Rockland, Me., and, now, Michigan’s Great Lakes Boat Building School!
GLBBS will be building its boat from the Mystic Seaport’s Beetle plan-set, thought to be the most elegant of whaleboat designs. This design was based on the improved whaleboat design of Charles Beetle, who learned to build them in his family’s boat shop as an apprentice. His father, James Beetle, built the first of the Beetle whale boats and is said to have produced over 1000 of them between 1834 and 1854, some of which indeed were used on the Morgan. The Beetle family became famous for their whale boats. Charles later went on to build another famous Beetle boat, the Beetle Cat, after the last of the whaleboats were built. Those cat boats were built using many of the same materials and techniques employed in building the whaleboats.
The whaleboats were built to be fast and light-weight. But the tradeoff for these two traits was durability, as they were often replaced after just one voyage. None-the-less, they are boats to be admired as they were perfect for what they were meant to do. There are several construction details worth pointing out. Perhaps most noticeable is the framing spacing. Frames amidships were installed closer together than on the bow and stern. The closeness of frames amidships gave the boat added strength in that area when being lowered from or hoisted back up to the whale ship, in order to help prevent damage due to being banged against the ship’s hull.
Another unusual but plainly obvious feature is the planking. Planking on the whaleboat is mostly batten-seam carvel style to give it a smooth hull shape. Earlier whale boats were completely lapstraked, which were noisier due to water splashing against the overlapped portions of the strakes. It was important to keep the boat quiet to prevent startling its prey. Since planks are butted up against one-another in a carvel planked boat, creating a smooth skin, there is less water splash in the absence of the overlaps.
However, the garboard plank (which is always in the water), the sheer plank, and the plank below the sheer plank (the latter two are always out of the water) on the whaleboat are overlapped to add strength to the boat, since they are not susceptible to splashing noise.
Carvel planking, installed using batten-seams, prevents the water leakage that is a characteristic of calked, carvel planked boats that have been out of the water for some time. Typically, a carvel planked boat needs to be put in the water for a day or so to allow the planks to swell up in order to close the calked seams of the planks tightly to keep water from leaking in. Since the boats are hung onboard the ship on davits when not in use, they dry out and thus the planks shrink causing the seams between the plank to open up. This is a certain problem since the whale boats, when lowered into the water, need to be immediately ready to go in pursuit of a whale. Installing a batten behind the carvel plank seam helps to keep the joint water tight.
Another facet of carvel planking involves hollowing out the inside of the planks at the turn of the bilge before they are hung on the boat. However, instead of going through the labor of hollowing them out, a steaming method called “whomping” was used to cup the planks to the correct curvature on the whaleboat. Basically, small blocks of wood, with their length cut to the width of the plank, were molded to the curvature of the bilge where they were to hang, and were loosely clamped along the plank. Then either steam or boiling water was applied to the plank, and the clamps were slowly tightened until the plank was cupped to the desired curvature.
The frames are installed after planking has been completed. They are pre-bent to the most extreme curve of the bilge and temporarily held in place using spalls. When they are ready to be installed, the spalls are removed and the curves are straightened to fit as required. Notches are cut so that the frame fits around the batten but not tight against the planks.
The planked and framed whaleboat, fashioned as just described, results in a strong, interwoven structure. Other unique Beetle whaleboat details include oak bow chocks, mounted on adjoining sides of the top of the stem, between which the harpoon line runs through, and a heavy logger head, strongly mounted aft, which the harpoon line gets wrapped around to securely hold it. There is also a hinged, mast tabernacle to help raise and lower the mast quickly, along with a slide to guide the heel of the mast to the step. The boat is completed with unique cleats and braces, installed specifically for the purpose of hunting a whale.
Whaling could be very dangerous. Injuries occurred while processing whales in rough seas. Rigging accidents occurred aloft. And accidents occurred when hunting whales in the whaleboats. Whaleboats were occasionally flipped over by a harpooned whale or even smashed, resulting in injuries and perhaps even death for the crewman.
Supporting GLBBS in building the whaleboat is Michigan’s Maritime Heritage Alliance in Traverse City, which is making the spars, and the Michigan Chapter of The Traditional Small Craft Association which is making the oars.