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The Development and Design of Arctic Whaling and Sealing Vessels: Encyclopedia Arctica 9: Transportation and Communications
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

The Development and Design of Arctic Whaling and Sealing Vessels

EA-Transportation and Communications
(H. I. Chapelle)

THE DEVELOPMENT AND DESIGN OF ARCTIC WHALING AND SEALING VESSELS

Vessels designed and built for work in the arctic ice were first de–
veloped from the Greenland, Spitsbergen, and Novaya Zemlya whale and seal
fisheries some time before 1700. The lack of early shipbuilding records
makes it impossible to set an exact date, however. Old pictures, showing
vessels in the ice, survive from the sixteenth century and indicate that the
dangers of the ice pack were well known to seamen. Undoubtedly the pioneer–
ing vessels in these fisheries were converted merchantmen, but the seamen
who survived entering the ice in these vessels would soon desire better craft.
The best mode of tracing the early development of the ships is by referring
to the numerous drawings and paintings of whaling scenes before 1800.
On the evidence of the ships shown in the early whaling pictures it is
apparent that the converted merchantman was replaced very slowly, between
1650 and 1725, by vessels designed and built for arctic work. The indication
that ships were being built and fitted out particularly for use in the Arctic
is evident in these pictures by the gradual suppression of decoration and
beakheads; the addition of numerous wales or guards and of sheathing; and
finally, the appearance of many ships with round sterns, no projecting cut–
waters, and without the high quarterdecks so popular with early shipbuilders.
However, the square-stern vessel was never wholly replaced, for it was found
that a strong hull could be built with this form and the greater room that it
provided, compared with the sharp or round-stern hull, had great attraction.

EA-Trans. Chapelle: Arctic Whaling and Sealing Vessels

The types of ships most used in the early arctic fisheries, as identi–
fied from the early pictures, were "pinks" and "flyboats." These were really
sharp-stern vessels, very full and round in the quarters, that were developed
by the Dutch and Scandinavians and adopted by the English, French, and other
Europeans. A few pictures indicate a type known as the "bark," which had a
counter stern instead of the lower square transom stern found in the majority
of ships of the period. The popularity of the round stern ships was undoubt–
edly based upon their strength, for the stern was the weakest part of the
structure of wooden ships of the then common types. The "pinks" and "fly–
boats" had been developed for use in the Baltic and North seas, where they
had met some ice as well as severe weather, and so the types had some inher–
ent advantages that made them the natural choice of European whalers and sealers.
The "Greenland" fisheries, centered on Spitsbergen which was then sup–
posed to be a part of Greenland, were very popular and profitable; the hunt
spread into Davis Strait and Hudson Strait late in the seventeenth century.
American whaling in these waters began as early as 1732. Most of the American
arctic vessels were large sloops, probably about 60 feet on deck. Gradually
schooners, brigs, and ships from the colonies entered the arctic fisheries.
Except for a few European vessels, the arctic whaling and sealing craft
were small for their time; 60 feet to nearly 100 feet length. It was found
that the small vessels were handy and readily worked in the ice floes, and
their light draft was useful in a poorly charted sea. Their cargoes were very
valuable and even the smallest vessel could carry enough to make the arctic
venture profitable. Most of the cargoes were capable of being closely and
compactly stowed, whether oil or furs, and this added to the advantage of the
small vessel. Of course, the risks to the shipowner were great and the smaller

EA-Trans. Chapelle: Arctic Whaling and Sealing Vessels

investment necessary in a small ship, and in maintaining the small crew re–
quired by such a vessel, was another factor in the arctic fisheries.
Bering Strait was first passed by a whaler in 1844, after which the
western arctic whale fishery became the most important. The arctic whaling
and sealing fleet of the United States, in 1846, consisted of 678 ships and
bark-rigged vessels, 35 brigs and 44 schooners, all valued above $21,000,000
at the time. By 1850 there were 736 vessels of all rigs in the arctic fish–
eries. A decline then set in, and the number of arctic whalers and sealers
gradually diminished; the final blow came in the early years of the present
century when the commercial demand for whalebone ended. Arctic whaling has
not been practised commercially since. Sealing, however, has continued until
the present time; the Pacific grounds having been first nearly exhausted and
then finally closed to seal hunters, the last sealing activity has been on the
east coast of Greenland. The American sealing industry, which had been center–
ed at New London, Conn., had not only exploited the eastern arctic waters but
also the Antarctic; but when these areas were exhausted the rise of the Bering
Strait sealing grounds caused San Francisco to become the center of the in–
dustry. New Bedford, Mass., had been the center of the whale fishery in the
east; now the rise of the wes tern arctic whale fishery made San Francisco
the headquarters of the whaling fleet.
The whaling and sealing vessels engaged in some arctic trading as well,
and until comparatively recent times it was impossible to distinguish trader
and fisherman by either their vessels or their intent. Some of the vessels
were ordinary seagoing craft, even built for South Sea mission work or as
yachts, and adapted to northern waters merely through the addition of sheathing;
others were specially built to withstand the ice pack as well as possible. They

EA-Trans. Chapelle: Arctic Whaling and Sealing Vessels

carried sufficient food, fuel, and gear to permit wintering, yet had capacity
enough for their cargoes in addition. Each ship had to be independent of all
support for two or even three years in extreme cases; only the Greenland fish–
eries were worked on a one-year boyage, as a general rule. In the long season
when whaling and sealing were impossible, the vessels could often trade very
profitably with the Eskimos.
The ice-working ability of a sailing vessel was necessarily limited and
any real ice-breaking characteristic was unobtainable. Therefore the aim in
the design of the arctic whaler and sealer, as long as sail alone was the motive
power, was to produce a very strong ship capable of withstanding ice conditions,
yet one of relatively large capacity in proportion to her size. She also had
to be as good a sailer and sea boat as these requirements would permit, to enable
the ship to make reasonably quick and safe passages to and from the arctic
grounds. Unfortunately these requirements did not allow a hull-form that was
suitable for withstanding the extreme ice pressure. The whalers and sealers,
therefore, tried to do their work so that they would not be caught by floe ice
and "squeezed." When they were caught, they often suffered losses; sometimes
large fleets of American whalers were lost in the Arctic, particularly in the
western Arctic. In 1871, 32 ships were lost and, in 1876, 20 were crushed in
two memorable disasters. Hardly a season passed in which one or more vessels
were not destroyed by the ice or by grounding.
The inherent difficulty of building an ice-working ship having seaworthiness,
capacity, and sailing qualities was fully recognized by both arctic whaler and
sealers. They planned their vessels, therefore, to be strong enough to stand
the shock of ramming ice floes and fitted them so, particularly through hard–
wood sheathing, that ice would not cut through the sides. To avoid being crushed

EA-Trans. Chapelle: Arctic Whaling and Sealing Vessels

they had their sides strengthened, but their hulls being of unsuitable form
to withstand extreme pressure, they invariably attempted to utilize some safe
harbor in the Arctic in which to spend the winter. If caught at sea in the
ice they usually left their ships and lived ashore, carrying supplies with
them. This was done before the movement of the ice floes in the spring made
passage over the ice hazardous and before the ships were liable to damage. If
the ship was not crushed they usually succeeded in returning to her but some–
times they vessel became derelict. When ships were destroyed their crews
usually escaped to other vessels, sometimes only after laborious and perilous
boat voyages alongshore through floating ice to open water, or to some winter
harbor.
Unlike the whaling vessel, the sealer often roamed far from the known
fishing grounds, as he was part fisherman and part trader to a far greater
degree than the whaleman. The sealing vessel was therefore a small vessel,
usually, light in draft and strongly built. The sealer tried to find a safe
winter harbor well in advance of the closing of navigation and, if possible,
where there were Eskimos with whom trade could be carried on during the closed
season. Only in the eastern Arctic were large vessels employed in sealing;
these were European vessels whose size was determined by their trans-Atlantic
passages and long vouages. The Labrador sealing still practiced has been car–
ried on with such vessels, though now they are operated out of Canadian ports.
Only the East Greenland sealing has remained in European hands.
The American sealing vessels were sloops in colonial times but the
schooner soon became popular. Certain characteristics were soon developed in
the designs of schooners for the sealing trade brought about not only by geo–
graphical elements in their employment but also by economic factors. When a
sealing schooner was built, particularly during the early nineteenth century,

EA-Trans. Chapelle: Arctic Whaling and Sealing Vessels

she was designed and built not only to work in ice if necessary but also to
make long voyages to the sealing ground. When built she might first go to
the grounds off Cape Horn or on the southwest coast of South America one voy–
age, and the next she might try Hudson Bay, Davis Strait, or Baffin Bay. Long
voyages in the small vessels suitable for some of the sealing grounds made it
desirable that the vessel sail very well; the stormy seas she had to meet made
seaworthiness most important. Since the sealer would enter unexplored or un–
charted waters, light draft was also very important.
New London having the ownership of most of the sealing fleet in this
period, the sealing schooner models developed here to the highest degree as
early as 1790. Figure I shows the lines of a typical sealing schooner of the
New London type, of the early nineteenth century. She is what was termed a
"pilot-boat" model, since she resembled the pilot-boat schooners that then
Characterized American ports — she differed from them sharply in proportions,
however. The sealing schooner was marked by great beam and small depth in
proportion to her length; she had, as a result, less rise in her bottom than
would be found in pilot-boat schooners of her time. The sealer carried a very
large rig, consisting of the usual fore-and-aft sails of the pilot-boat schoon–
er (main, fore, jib, fore staysail, jib topsail, main gaff topsail, and main–
topmast staysail) and a square course and topsail on her foremast. She also
had some light sails when sent to the Cape Horn sealing grounds, to make her
passage through the Doldrums and Trades as rapid as possible. On her voyage out
she earned nothing and represented outlay only, so the shorter the passage the
sooner she began to make a return on the owner's investment. The plan shown
was redrawn from a French drawing made in 1828 from measurements taken off one of
these schooners. Builder's models of similar schooners are now in the Mystic
Marine Museum, Mystic, Connecticut, and show the drawing to represent what might

EA-Trans. Chapelle: Arctic Whaling and Sealing Vessels

be termed a "standard" vessel in both model and size. Few of the sealers
of this period exceeded 70 feet in length.
Relatively little consideration was given in these sealers to producing
a vessel particularly suited to resisting ice pressure, for reasons that have
been noted, but the model came nearest to producing a hull to resist crushing
of any commercial type of craft used in arctic waters. The requirements for
speed, power, and seaworthiness in this case produced a vessel that might
"squeeze out" under ice pressure because of the dead rise in the very shallow
hull used. The construction of the New London sealers was very strong; nearly
all the timber employed in their construction was white oak and they had, in
addition to the hull planking of oak, a strong sheathing or oak, maple, or
beech. The sealing schooner usually carried four "skiffs" or "canoes;" these
were light square-stern round-bottom dinghies, 15 to 17 feet long, clench plank–
ed, and fitted to row and sail.
This class of schooner may be considered the only distinctive model of
sailing sealer the fishery produced; the Pacific sealers of late date were
either converted yachts or fishing schooners, until the western arctic sealing
degenerated into a trading venture. Then the sealing vessels became trading
craft in fact and should be so classed.
As long as sail power was all that was available for use in arctic work,
a great deal of attention was given to sparring and rigging the vessels proper–
ly. Generally speaking, the sloop and schooner rig, without any square sails,
was considered wholly unsuitable for work in the ice. The reason was a simple
one; the difficulty or rather, the almost impossibility, of stopping and back–
ing a fore-and-aft-rigged vessel made working in heavy ice with such rigs im–
practical. Therefore all arctic vessels were rigged with square sails; schooners

EA-Trans. Chapelle: Arctic Whaling and Sealing Vessels

and sloops with square topsails and a large course. Brigs, ships, and barks
were common among larger craft; the bark seems to have been the predominate
rig, among whalers at least, after about 1800. With vessels fitted with square
sails, it was usually possible to stop the ship when underway, or to back her
under full control, by backing part or whole of the square sails. The vessel
fitted with square sails, even though sloop or schooner rigged, was also well
suited for long ocean passages where she might run long distances with fair
winds, without the need of tacking.
The fierce gales met with in certain arctic waters made it necessary to
design the rigs so that sail could be reduced quickly, and spars and rigging
had to be very strong. It was general, therefore, to find the arctic vessel
fitted with a rather small spread of sail in proportion to her size, and re–
straint was exercised in the fitting of light sails. Only in a few types,
such as the New London sealing schooners, were large rigs employed; in these
the hulls were made wide and very powerful so that the sails would not over–
power them in strong winds. In most types the relatively snug rig led to
sharp, narrow hulls that could be easily driven by their small sail areas.
Such vessels usually were good sea boats, rolling deep but easily, and so
were comfortable vessels for their crews. The good features of the narrow,
snugly rigged vessels were finally brought to a high level in the steam power–
ed auxiliaries built for whaling and sealing in the '70's.
With the introduction of steamers into the sealing fishery in the East,
the European sealers built a distinctive class of ship — low-powered auxil–
iary barks that were on the same model as contemporary steam whalers.
These steam sealers usually had their boilers and engines amidships, with the stack
between fore and main masts, whereas the whalers had their engine rooms farther

EA-Trans. Chapelle: Arctic Whaling and Sealing Vessels

aft and their stacks were between main and mizzen masts, leaving a large
cargo hold amidships required by their cargo. The European sealers were
about the same size as the American steam whalers, 150 to 180 feet long;
most of the sealers were built in Scotland. The majority were wooden vessels
but a few were built of wrought iron. The European sealer was employed for
much arctic exploration work, in the '70's and '80's, and is represented by
such craft as the Alert and the Bear , employed in American expeditions in the
'70' and '80's, This class of ship may therefore be discussed in detail as
exploration vessels.
The Greenland sealing employed not only these auxiliary barks, but also
a number of smaller craft, many owned by Scandinavians, Dutch, and Germans.
By 1900, sealing vessels employed in East Greenland waters had developed into
a recognizable type, much like the North Sea and Baltic steam trawlers in
model, very strongly built. The ice conditions in this area were unusually
severe; broken floe ice of great area often covered the sealing grounds and
very severe storms were met along the coast. As a result, the sealers made
no attempt to produce a stram ice-breaker and instead developed an ice-work–
ing ship capable of nosing her way through the leads in the floes. To do this
the ships were built with deep, almost straight stems, heavily armored, which
could be used to pry open a narrow lead through which the vessel could pass.
Special consideration was given to fitting the stern so that the ship could
back in the ice without damage to either rudder or propeller.
Low-powered steam plants were commonly installed, giving rather low speed
to the ship, but sails were used in making long passages, in addition to using
power. The boilers were designed to burn coal, or blubber when necessary.
Most of these small sealing vessels were between 70 and 100 feet in length,

EA-Trans. Chapelle: Arctic Whaling and Sealing Vessels

ketch-rigged with small sail area. Under power few could make over 8 knots
in smooth water. Men who have used these vessels consider them most suitable
for East Greenland waters; they admit, however, that the ships cannot break
even light fjord ice with their low power. The low power used in these craft
permits low fuel consumption; a very important factor in small vessels work–
ing in arctic waters far from a supply base. Low-powered diesel engines came
into use in these sealers about 1908; many sealers prefer steam since the latter
permits greater flexibility in the fuel employed and also gives steam economic–
ally for heating, working powerful windlasses and winches, and for de-icing
the ship. In the small sealers wood construction is generally preferred to
steel; the wooden hull is supposed to be less liable to damage in the ice;
probably the relative low cost of the small wooden hull is the real factor.
Figure 2 shows the characteristics of the East Greenland sealers, though
the vessel is somewhat larger than usual in this class. The design was in–
tended for a combination sealer and supply ship, to work with two smaller
vessels, and in model and arrangement incorporated the features considered
both desirable and necessary in these sealers. The deep and angular forefoot,
heavily sheathed, armored, and internally dtrengthened, was desired in lieu
of an ice-breaking bow which would allow the ship to ride out onto the ice.
The owners believed that the ice-breaker bow would be wholly undesirable be–
cause the ship was relatively small and so had not enough weight to break the
hard, thick floe ice, and such a bow would not serve to nose through floating
ice with the low-power, low-fuel consumption objective. An 850 h.p. European
reversing diesel was to be used. The vessel is suitable for a uniflo-type
steam plant which would probably be more economical since it would reduce the
number of heating and power units required in the ship. Much attention was

EA-Trans. Chapelle: Arctic Whaling and Sealing Vessels

given to the stern in this ship, a profile being adopted that would give the
best backing effect in the ice without damage to the rudder, wheel, or stern
structure. This was accomplished by constructing the sharp stern very strong–
ly and armoring in the same manner as the bow, building the rudder extremely
strong, and setting both rudder and propeller well under the hull. The head
of the rudder was recessed into the stern deadwood, when the rudder was center–
ed, as a further precaution in the protection of this member. Propeller was
made of cast nickel steel and the tail shaft was high tensile cold-rolled
steel. The shafting was supported at each end of the propeller aperture by
heavy bearings. The construction is indicated in a section in the figure,
which shows the very heavy framing and planking. At all bulkheads cross-brac–
ing was employed to support the bilges and sides, in addition to heavy hanging
and lodging knees. The frames were closely spaced and the spaces between them,
in the bottom, was chocked solid and caulked to give a solid timber bottom out
to the turn of the bilges. Forward deckhouse had steel sides; an "ice bridge"
was placed on its roof for conning the ship in the ice. All winches and wind–
lasses were enclosed in either deck houses or trunks, with steam lines to pre–
vent freezing. Water tanks were fitted with steam coils for the same purpose.
An attempt was made to form the ship so that she could "squeeze out" when
caught in a pressure area in the ice. Whether or not this design has suffic–
ient flare to the topside to permit this cannot be determined, the amount of
flare being limited by the need of having a seaworthy ship in open water. By
employing a slack bilge the owners hoped that the easy heeling of the ship
would add to the effectiveness of the flaring topsides in a "squeeze." In
order to save fuel and to help steady the ship, she was rigged as a three–
masted schooner with leg-of-mutton sails and a large jib, giving sufficient

EA-Trans. Chapelle: Arctic Whaling and Sealing Vessels

area to permit sailing in strong winds, at least. There was no requirement
for shallow draft and, with the sharp model, the hull had to be deep to obtain
the required capacity.
The construction of this vessel was extremely heavy; frames and plank
were of oak and sheathing, outer keel, rudder blade, outer stem and post, and
shoe were of greenheart. The interior longitudinals were pine. All bulkheads
were double-diagonal planked with convas between the skins. Steel diagonal
strapping was used on the outside of the frames, 5 to 81. Steel border-angles
were fitted to secure the bulkheads to the ceiling tightly. Four bulkheads
were employed. The engines and tanks were hea ily shored to prevent movement
when the vessel hit ice. In general, the ship was very plainly fitted, but
all quarters and working spaces were well insulated. Cargo winches were of
ten tons capacity. Much attention was given to pumping systems; in addition
to the usual hand pumps placed inside the deckhouse over the engine room,
two independently driven power pumps were required, as well as one driven by
the main engine. The power pumps could also be used as fire pumps. The use
of the diesel necessitated installation of a cooling system that would permit
accurate temperature control. A small water condenser was also required. On
the whole, the design seems to represent a more complete vessel than was usual
in these sealers; however, the ship was supposed, to incorporate the elements
of design, fitting, and construction that experience had shown to be most de–
sirable in the work, with due regard to cost. A vessel of similar model could
be built of steel, with some modification, at less cost today but, in spite
of this, the sealers appear to prefer wooden hulls.
The first sailing whalers designed for arctic work were characterized
by strength, retaining seaworthiness and reasonable sailing qualities. On the

EA-Trans. Chapelle: Arctic Whaling and Sealing Vessels

eastern whaling grounds the area had been known long enough to be reasonably
well charted by the time shipbuilding records permit examination of the de–
sign of such craft. Hence, perhaps, the vessels built for the eastern arctic
whaling were little different in model from the whalers used on the open sea.
But, with the opening of the Bering Strait whaling grounds, uncharted waters
became a consideration and so a modified model of whaleship came into existence.
Figure 3 is the lines of two whaling barks built in the United States in 1854–
58 for the new fishery. One of the vessels built from this model was the Gay
Head , a successful arctic whaler that was lost in the great arctic disaster off
Point Belcher, Alaska, in 1871, when 31 other vessels were crushed.
The model differs from the older whaling ships in being relatively wider
and shallower. The reduction in draft gave greater margin of safety in the
unknown Arctic Sea, of course. Otherwise the design showed no important changes
in hull-form. The very raking bow may have given some slight ice-breaking
power; however, this appears to have been accidental rather than intentional
in the design. Obviously, sail gave insufficient power to allow ice-breaking
in any but thin ice; for this the rather upright stem, well armored, served
well enough. The plan will serve to indicate the general design of many arctic
whalers, however; the sailing vessels were commonly between 100 and 140 feet
in length, usually bark rigged, and built with a good deal of consideration
to handiness and sailing qualities. Though heavily constructed, they depended
upon ice sheathing to a great extent for protection, and so their safety was
more a matter of management than of structure and model when on the arctic whal–
ing grounds.
The sailing vessel was found to be seriously handicapped in arctic work,
as her movement, and therefore her safety, depended upon favorable winds. As

EA-Trans. Chapelle: Arctic Whaling and Sealing Vessels

more experience was gained in the western Arctic, the advantages of steam
whalers became apparent. Some of the European steam whalers and sealers
employed in the eastern Arctic were purchased by American owners for the
western arctic fishery, but legal and economic factors made this unsatisfac–
tory. Beginning in the 1870's, American steam whalers were built both in
Maine and California for the Bering Sea and arctic fisheries. These were
wooden vessels, 140 to 180 feet long, with small steam power and full sail
rig. The vessels were on a rather standardized model, sharp-ended and with
much rise to the bottom, raking flaring bows, and light round sten; a good
example is shown in Figure 4. This was a design prepared at Bath, Maine, in
1880, supposedly for the ship Belvidere built that year, the Mary and Helen
launched in 1882, and the Navarch built in 1892, but the customhouse records
show these vessels differed in dimensions from those of the plan. It is pos–
sible that the ships were lengthened in building; the other dimensions given
by the customhouse are insufficiently reliable to be of much value as a guide
in checking the identification. The sharp, deep model of these whaling steam–
ers is well shown in the plan; they were designed to sail fast and steam well
with small power. It was learned by the time these vessels were built that a
sharp-lined hull could steam in heavy weather with relatively small engine
power; here again fuel consumption governed the amount of power placed in these
ships. The whaling steamer Orca , built at Sen Francisco in 1882, on a model
very much like that shown in Figure 4, had a nominal horsepower of 280, though
she measured 177 feet in length, 32 feet 6 inches beam outside of sheathing,
18 feet-11 inches depth in hold, and 462.39 tons, net.
These steamers usually had two-bladed propellers which could be brought
in line with the sternpost in sailing; some had propellers that could be lifted

EA-Trans. Chapelle: Arctic Whaling and Sealing Vessels

up into a well in the stern for sailing. Many of the ships had telescoping
smokestacks as well, that could be lowered out of the way of sails and rigging.
The arctic steam whalers usually carried from five to seven whaleboats, each
28 feet long. The use of iron knees, diagonal iron strapping in the sides, and
extensive armoring of stem, sides along the waterline, and around the stern
made these vessels very strong and well protected from the ice, though their
form made them vulnerable to great ice pressure. Some of the vessels had
pilothouses, others did not. The crews were usually housed in deckhouses, as
in most arctic ships.
The construction is shown in a typical cross-section in the drawing and
requires no explanation. By the time these whaling steamers were being built
experience with both commercial and exploration vessels in the Arctic had
taught good methods of structural design for ice-working ships built of wood.
The use of iron knees in place of the earlier wooden members had given more
cargo space but had created a new problem; the iron knees were affected by
frost. This was solved by sheathing the iron knees with an insulation of tarred
felt and wood sheathing.
The type of vessel shown in Figure 4 not only represented the final de–
velopment of the arctic steam whaling ship but also fairly represents the model
used in the large eastern sealing steamers of the same period. The variations
in hull-form in these ships were minor; most did not have the hollow garboards
at the keel, shown in Figure 4, which was a source of weakness in grounding or
working in heavy floating ice; instead they had a rather flat bottom. There
were some differences in rake of bows, profile, and form of sterns and degree
of fullness in the entrance and run, as might be expected among ships built by
different builders. A good deal of ingenuity was expended in producing these

EA-Trans. Chapelle: Arctic Whaling and Sealing Vessels

ships, so that they might be cheap and efficient; some had feathering pro–
pellers (apparently intended in the design shown in Figure 4) and many arrange–
ments were made to allow easy removal and replacement of the rudder. Cargo
was made as compact as was possible, many ships having a steam "digester" to
dry out oil, and bailers for packaging whalebone. Stoves and other heating
systems received much attention; some of the whalers were better fitted out
than contemporary government-fitted exploration vessels.
In considering the designs used in these commercial vessels built for
arctic use, the fundamental limitations placed on their design should not be
overlooked. The first of these was the need of the ships being self-contained
for long periods of time; hence the small power given their engines so that
the relatively small quantity of fuel they could carry would suffice. Another
limitation was the need for cargo capacity above and beyond the coal and sup–
plies for crew they had to carry. Still another factor was the requirement
that they be good sea boats, with a fair turn of speed, so that their voyages
to and from the whaling grounds would be both safe and short; the trips out
and back produced no profit. The necessity of great strength led to heavy
weight-displacement, with a decrease in dead-weight capacity in given dimen–
sions. With respect to this, there were practical limits, learned by long ex–
perience, on the size of ship intended for arctic whaling and sealing. Too
big a ship was unhandy in the ice, required too many in the crew — too many
mouths to feed — and was too expensive to build and fit out for the fisheries.
It can be seen that the purpose in the design of these vessels was not
to produce the ideal ice-working ship, or a ship for but a single purpose,
(as in the modern icebreakers for example); rather the objective was to turn
out a vessel that would meet many conflicting requirements to the best advantage

EA-Trans. Chapelle: Arctic Whaling and Sealing Vessels

commercially. While the steam whalers were able to penetrate the Arctic
farther than the old sailing vessels (the steamers often wintering as far
east as the Mackenzie), they still were subject to loss in the ice as had
been the earlier craft. By the end of the whaling in the Arctic, the design
of ships to "squeeze out" under ice pressure was understood and it was also
well known that such vessels were not suitable as carriers for commercial work,
not only because of their form but also because so much of their displacement
was required to carry their massive construction.
The long survival of sail in arctic commercial ships requires acknowledg–
ment; sail was not retained because there were doubts as to the reliability
of the steamers' engines but rather because the use of sails permitted fuel
saving and allowed the employment of small engines and boilers. The little
space that thus must be given up to motive power allowed more of the hull to
be utilized in cargo holds and for supplies. While there appear to have been
no doubts about the reliability of engines and boilers, many arctic navigators
looked upon the propeller as a source of weakness. It might readily be so
damaged in heavy ice as to be put out of commission, circumstances might be
such that repairs could not be effected. The use of sails might then save the
ship. In the years when the arctic settlements were no more than trading posts,
the need of a ship being self-sufficient brought about the practice of sailing
the vessels as far into the Arctic as possible and only then employing the en–
gines. Even then the small power of the engines could be increased by using
the sails when occasion demanded. The rig need not be large and could be made
strong and so as to be easily repaired. The disadvantages of the use of sail,
in possible loss of men or in injury to crew members, and in the need of train–
ing in handling sails, were fully appreciated but were outweighed by the prac-

EA-Trans. Chapelle: Arctic Whaling and Sealing Vessels

tical advantages of this very old mode of ship propulsion. It is because
of these matters that, even today, there are many experienced arctic naviga–
tors who require some sail in their vessels, particularly in small vessels
that must work without support from supply ships or bases.
In the examination of all vessels used in commercial work in arctic waters
it must be remembered that the cost of the ship, and of its operation, is one
of the factors in its survival. If the ship is so expensive in build – due
to power, size, fitting, and specification — or is so expensive to operate —
due to fuel consumption, mechanical repair and maintenance, or numerous crew —
that the owners cannot show a profit, then the vessel is useless for her pur–
pose, no matter how carefully designed she may be. It is this that makes com–
parison between arctic commercial craft and the government-financed or pri–
vately fitted exploring vessels impossible in a practical sense. The economic
factor has, indeed, made the development of the arctic commercial vessels very
slow and is the explanation of the supremacy of the wooden hull, sails, and
stram power over the modern steel ship and diesel in this field.
The arctic sealer and whaler are now almost matters of the past – no
longer is it necessary to fit out such craft for a long stay in arctic waters,
far from the support of civilization. It is only when it will be necessary
to fit ships to meet similar requirements of use in the Arctic that the lessons
to be drawn from a study of the designs of arctic whalers and sealers will be
of practical value.
H. I. Chapelle

EA-Trans. Chapelle: Arctic Whaling and Sealing Vessels

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Hawes, C. B. Whaling . 1924, Doubleday Page & Co., Garden City, N.Y.

Hohman, Elmo P. The American Whaleman . 1928, Longmans Green, New York.

Jenkins, J. T. A History of the Whale Fisheries . 1921, Witherby, London.

Starbuck, Alexander A History of the American Whaling Industry to the Year 1876 .

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