Questions about Arctic Whaling

Jim Forbes asks if the “bone” that Chatfield talks about — he shipped tons of the stuff back to Massachusetts, estimating one load’s value at $18,000 in 19th century dollars — is “baleen.” Nope. Baleen is a fibrous material that some species of whale sport in their jaws which acts as a strainer. The whale would plow through a mess of sardines, anchovies or krill with its mouth open, scoop up a ton of protein, and then expel the water through the balleen, leaving the food inside. Bone was just that — bone. It was used, these were the days of pre-plastic, for fake ivory applications. Scrimshaw is not bone, but whale teeth. Baleen was used for corset stays, collar points, hoops in hoop skirts. All sorts of uses.

Jim also asks about “kedge” anchors. Anchors were a very big deal for a whaler. They were like emergency brakes on a steep hill in San Francisco. Captains lived in total fear of a lee shore — meaning, they never wanted to be blown onto a beach. The more distance between the ship and the shore, the safer they felt. So, if the wind is blowing off-shore — meaning, the wind is coming from the direction of the land,  then, if all hell broke loose — a mast breaks, a rudder is disabled, the ship will be blown away from the reefs and shoals. If the wind is blowing on-shore, towards the land, then any screw up could result in utter disaster and the loss of the ship. That’s where the anchors come in. If you are totally screwed and being blown ashore, time to drop anchors. Ships were constantly losing their anchors. Either because their lines snapped, or because they became fouled on the bottom and had to be dropped. Most ships had two.

A kedge anchor was a small anchor that could be placed in a ship’s boat and rowed someplace. Think of it as a manuevering device. You’d run it off the stern, drop it, and then winch up tight to move the stern back and forth. Very useful for winching a ship sideways, off of a shoal, etc. Here’s a definition:

[the]…smallest anchors, the kedge anchors were used when the ship was anchored in a harbour. They helped to steady the ship and keep her clear of the bower anchor cable. They could also be used to ‘kedge’ or warp the ship. Warping was a way of moving the ship in a confined space or if there was no wind. The kedge anchor would be rowed away from the ship by boat and then lowered. By pulling in the anchor cable the ship could be moved along. This could be repeated until there was more space or the sails caught the wind.”*

*HMS Victory website 

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

0 thoughts on “Questions about Arctic Whaling”

  1. thanks Dave. Then I guess “bone” were skletal remains shipped home where they were ground for fertilizer or feed?
    Back when I frelied on s two-stroke Tohatsu for my Panga I wisely carried a storm actor aon about 300 feet of half-inch line– just in case I needed to stay pointed on the long drift to the Japans.

  2. I don’t think whale bone was ground up for bone meal. Remember, this was the golden age of guano islands so there was a pretty plentiful nitrogen supply elsewhere. I think the whale bone went into “ivory” applications. Storm anchors are cool in concept, I hope I never have to see one in action. I like how the Captain describes using a dead whale as a storm anchor, the oil from the blubber smoothing the seas.

  3. Based on my own reading: When whalers brought “bone” to market they were in fact bring baleen. Your information about baleen is accurate. The actual skeleton was not valuable.

    Toothed whales, such as orcas and sperm where a source of oil and ivory (for scrimshaw). Also, many whalers traded with eskimos and brought back ivory tusks from walruses. Marine ivory was considered inferior to elephant ivory.

    Baleen whales provided baleen and oil. Bowhead, right, and grey whales are baleen whales.