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.
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.