By Howard Meyerson
CEDARVILLE, MI — We don’t hear much about whaling in the Great Lakes, but that’s the talk in this quaint northern Lake Huron town. Whaling and whaleboats have become a popular topic. The Great Lakes Boat Building School here is building one.
Whaleboats were once the workhorses of great wooden whaling ships. Six crew-members would climb down into them and row or sail off to harpoon a whale and kill it so it could be processed. Whales, in that era, were a source of oil for lubrication and illumination.
The near 30-foot whaleboats were roughly constructed vessels, but seaworthy and tough. They had to be given the conditions they operated in, needing at times to withstand being towed by a determined whale. They were double-ended designs, meaning pointed at each end, so they could be rowed forwards or backwards in a hurry as the situation required.
“The project is a once in a lifetime opportunity for our students,” said Pat Mahon, GLBBS lead instructor. “There won’t be many whaleboats built in the future.”
Mahon’s students are building one of seven traditional whaleboats commissioned by
Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport Museum, mysticseaport.org, one of the nation’s premier maritime museums. That museum is home to 133-foot Charles W. Morgan, the last of the wooden whaling ships.
The Morgan was launched in 1841 in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Mystic Seaport Museum staff are restoring the 163-year old ship. They plan to launch her again this summer complete with a fleet of whaleboats.
GLBBS is one of the museums, schools and wooden boat builders across the country selected to build one, a great honor to say the least. The school was founded in 2006 to provide training in wood boat building, an almost lost art today. The school’s caliber is being recognized with this project.
“The Morgan will be seaworthy and will sail to New Bedford or Boston. It’s not going to be a static display,” said Bud McIntire, GLBBS director of development and student services. “Mystic Seaport acquired the ship in the 1941. It’s been sitting on soft mud in protected water. What they are doing is replacing the frames and the planking, rebuilding the ship.”
The Morgan was an active whale ship until 1921. She made 37 voyages over 80 years, according to Mystic Seaport’s website. Her longest voyage was almost five years and her shortest was eight and half months.
Building a whaleboat has not been all fun and games, Mahon said. Finding the appropriate white oak timber took time. Trees had to be located and milled to specification. The construction techniques used back when are different from those used today. It took time for both students and staff to come up to speed on how to build one authentically.
“Whaleboats were production boats back then. They were built quickly and didn’t have a
fancy finish. They were work boats and that is something I have to remind myself and students,” Mahon said. “We are not building a yachty type boat.”
Seventeen students are working on the project. All are enrolled at GLBBS, which offers a two-year associate degree in Wood Boat Building through North Central Michigan College in Petoskey. The school, which you can find at glbbs.org, is one of a growing list of programs being offered around the country.
The students fall largely into two categories, according to McIntire. There is the 20-something to 30-something crowd, a group of independent spirits who know an office job is not their calling, and the 45- to 60-year old crowd who are folks looking to start a second career.
“We took this project on because it fits our training goals for traditional boat building,” McIntire said. GLBBS also has other Michigan partners in the project.
The non-profit Maritime Heritage Alliance in Traverse City is building the whaleboat spars. The ash oars, and there are six, ranging in length from 15-feet to the 21-foot steering oar, are being built by the Traditional Small Craft Association which is affiliated with the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven.
We might not hear much about great whaling ships here in the Great Lakes, where the talk more frequently turns the bane of ballast-water into ocean-going ships, but it is clear from this project that their history is alive and well.
I suspect it will be a very special vessel when it is complete.
This column appears on: MLive Outdoors