Life on the Long Voyage

Crewmen on American whaleships came from all over the globe. Their work was hard, dirty, smelly, dangerous, lonely, and poorly paid, but some still liked it better than their prospects ashore.

Whaling threw together men from vastly different backgrounds. Many had no nautical skills at the beginning of a voyage and had to learn them on the spot. Even in well-run ships, the living quarters were often dank and infested with vermin. Aboard some ships, crewmen might work for two or three long, dangerous years only to find at the voyage’s end that they owed the shipowner money for medicine, tobacco, or other supplies. Some whalers loved the sea, but the romance of whaling was mostly in novels.



We have to work like horses and live like pigs.
—Robert Weir, aboard the Clara Bell, 1855


The most filthy, indecent and distressed set of men I ever came across.
—Thomas Roe, on his shipmates aboard the Chelsea, 1831


A person who has not been aboard a Nantucket Whaleman cannot imagine how close and miserable they live.
—Thomas Roe, aboard the Sarah, 1831


Courtesy of the Library of Congress

South Sea Whale Fishery, about 1835

In the foreground of this fanciful print, a whaleboat approaches a wounded right whale. The harpooner stands in the bow to deliver the killing lance behind the fin. Behind is the mother ship, with a crew cutting in, or trimming, long strips of fat off a floating whale.