The steam whaler Orca was built at San Francisco in 1882 specifically for the Pacific and Arctic whale fisheries. By the late 19th century, the Atlantic whale was too scarce due to overhunting, and whaling had moved almost completely to distant western waters to exploit the remaining whales.
Measuring 177 feet in length and 628 tons, Orca had a 280-HP steam engine for propulsion. It also had a full suit of auxiliary sails for backup and fuel conservation. When built, Orca was the largest auxiliary steam whaler in the United States.
The bark-rigged vessel was heavily built and braced, with a strongly raked bow to work in the Arctic ice pack. The heavy timbers and bow shape allowed it to be driven up onto the ice, where its weight helped to break through. Orca’s propeller had two blades so it could be aligned vertically with the stern timbers when not in use in order to protect it from the ice.
Information collected by Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Conn. indicates that Orca, along with many other Pacific whalers, resorted to shanghaiing, or acquiring crewmen from agents ashore who forced potential crewmen onto their ships in various ways. With around two dozen whaleships clearing San Francisco each year for the Pacific whaling grounds, the need for crewmen was great.
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