Voyage to the Arctic: A Whaler's Tale

Life and Work Onboard a Whaling Ship

How long were the whaling ships away for?

Whaling ships could be away for months and months at a time (sometimes over a year!). The famous whale ship The Diana was away for 14 months! 


Whaling ships were away for so long that quite often families and friends would have given up hope of seeing their loved ones ever again. Remember there was no way that the Whalers could contact the people at home.


What kind of conditions did Whalers have to live and work in?

The men who worked onboard the whaling ships would have had to endure the coldest conditions!


Arctic winters are long and cold, and summers are short and cool. Ice covers most of the ocean surface all the year round. The minimum temperatures that the Whalers would have had to endure would have been minus 68° C and the maximum what have been about minus 5° C. 


What were the living quarters like?

The living quarters onboard a whaling ship were divided into two areas. The captain and the two mates would have had quite luxurious cabins at the rear. The rest of the crew would live in the steerage section. The hold and the blubber room were where barrels, provisions, spare sails and ropes would have been stored.


What kind of food would Whalers have eaten?

The Whaler's normal rations would have included salted meat (to prevent the meat from going off), dry tea, coffee and sugar, dried peas (which were made into soups etc), beer, a small amount of fresh vegetables at the beginning of the voyage (without modern refrigerators, they did not stay in good condition very long!) and most importantly ship's biscuits.


Ship's biscuits were eaten instead of bread (which would have gone mouldy) and they were very hard and often ended up riddled with small maggots or weevils!


What kind of jobs did the Whalers do?

There were all kinds of jobs onboard a whale ship! Here are some examples... 

  • The Half Deck Boys would be the youngest members of the crew at about 13 or 14 years old. Their jobs included cleaning or 'swabbing' the decks, sorting the ropes, serving meals, fetching and carrying, and generally doing as they were told! 
  • The Harpooners would be in charge of mainting the harpoon and other whaling lances. The would be experts in 'throwing' the harpoons, to kill the whales. 
  • The Cooper or 'castmaker' would make and look after the barrels that stored the blubber. Making barrels was a complex art, which involved bending wood, heating metal, hammering and nailing. 
  • The Carpenter and the Blacksmith would look after the ship itself and make any repairs. They were constantly working as the great ships needed lots of attention. The Carpenter looked after the wood of the ship, and the Blacksmith looked after all of the metal. 
  • The Cook would keep an eye on the rations of food and prepare all of the food for the crew (the Captain's food would of course be much better than the ordinary crew's food!) 
  • The ship's Surgeon would look after everyone and treat any wounds or illnesses. He would have been a highly educated and respected man. 
  • The supreme sailor onboard was The Master (or 'Captain'). He was in charge of the ship and everyone else working in it. He was the one to decide where the ship would go and when. The Captain would write accounts of what had happened on each part of the journey and record any whales that had been caught. 

  • The Captain would have had assistants called 'Mates' - they helped the Captain to make decisions and manage the ship. 

  • Other jobs onboard included: Boatsteerers (controlling the Whaler Boats), and line or rope Coilers and Stewards. 
  • The ordinary crewmen were called the 'foremast hands'.  

The Blacksmith, Carpenter, Cook and Cooper (Caskmaker) ranked higher than ordinary crewmen. When the crew chased a whale, these men (and the Captain and Mates) remained behind as shipkeepers.


Find out about life as a Whaler during the 'Voyage to the Arctic: A Whaler's Tale' led session! Click here to go to led session information.

Document icon Learning article provided by: Hull Maritime Museum | 
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