The American Whaleboat of 2014

In 1978, Mystic Seaport Museum, Inc., published The Whaleboat: A Study of Design, Construction and Use from 1850 to 1970 by Willits ‘Will’ D. Ansel, a shipwright and boat builder at the Museum’s Henry B. duPont Preservation Shipyard. Ansel had been asked by Mystic Seaport to do research about the whaleboat, as by the beginning of the 1970s it was almost extinct. For many years this book was the ultimate source for anyone interested in the history of the American-built whaleboat. (To clarify one thing, the double-ended ‘whaleboat’ was the vessel lowered down from a whaleship and the watercraft from which the whale was hunted and killed. The whaleboat, with assistance from other whaleboats, would then sail or row back the dead whale to the whaleship where the whale was ‘refined’: cut to pieces, the blubber boiled in the tryworks and the oil kept in barrels. The oil was later used to light up the street lamps in all major cities in the country; whaling was a large and important industry in America during the 1800s.)

The best description of the content of this book is to name the different chapters: “Development of the Whaleboat to 1870”; “Performance and Use”; “Lines of the Whaleboat”; “Hull Structure”; “Fittings and Equipment”; “Sailing Rigs”; “Whaleboat Production”; “Building Methods”; “Painting, Repairs, and Maintenance of Whaleboats”; “The Whaleboats and Related Types”; and two appendixes: “Sail Plans and Rigs” and “Examples of Ten Whaleboats”.

Will Ansel’s The Whaleboat is a well-written, richly illustrated book – and some of the black & white photographs are taken by the author and many of the drawings are by him as well. Ansel has dug deep in old archives and sources, and this is truly a book for all wooden boat enthusiasts. A 2nd edition was published in 1983, but the book has been out of print for many years.

In 2008, while Mystic Seaport started restoring its flagship, the 1841 Charles W. Morgan, the last wooden whaleship in the world, the Museum soon realised that it had neither the manpower nor the funds to build the whaleboats that were needed for the whaleship’s 38th Voyage – between 1841 and 1921, the Morgan made 37 whaling voyages across the globe – and it would truly not be a total restoration of the whaleship if the whaleboats were not aboard for her last voyage. The question went out to the maritime community if there was an interest in building whaleboats for the Morgan’s 38th Voyage. When she left Mystic Seaport to embark on her voyage, on 17 May this spring, nine companies along the east coast, in a project called the National Whaleboat Project, had built ten brand new whaleboats.

The same day, the Morgan left the Museum, the institution published the 3rd edition of The Whaleboat, now with a slightly different title, The Whaleboat: A Study of Design, Construction and Use from 1850 to 2014. Added to Will Ansel’s chapters were now two new chapters by Will’s son, Walter Ansel, and Walter’s daughter, Evelyn Ansel, who thereby is the third generation Ansel to be involved in narrating the history of the American whaleboat. Walter is a senior shipwright at Mystic Seaport and has worked on the Morgan’s restoration and a lot of other vessel restoration projects at the Museum. After finishing up her college studies at Brown University, Evelyn has also worked on the Morgan, as an apprentice. This year, however, she has been a Fullbright scholar at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm.

Walter’s chapter is about a whaleboat programme from 2002, when Will came back to Mystic Seaport to teach Walter and a few other shipwrights how to build a whaleboat. Evelyn’s contribution is about the National Whaleboat Project, a well-penned article, which also includes her photographs. Earlier she has published articles with some wonderful drawings of hers.

So, here we have three shipwrights who write very well, two of which also take marvellous photographs and draw and depict brilliant pictures – a very talented family, the Ansels.

Order your copy of The Whaleboat here ($24.95 plus postage).

At a book signing for The Whaleboat in the Mystic Seaport Bookstore during the 2014 WoodenBoat Show, Walter Ansel, Will Ansel and Evelyn Ansel.

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