Working a whaleboat during a hunt was by far the most perilous part of what was already a dangerous job. Even a seriously wounded whale was still strong enough to break a boat in half and flip the crewmen into the water. Once harpooned, a terrified whale would sound or race away which caused the harpoon rope to unwind rapidly from its tub in the rear of the whaleboat. This was a very dangerous moment for the men. If a man got in the way of this rope he could lose and arm or a leg, or worse, be dragged overboard and drowned. In one instance a boatsteerer succeeded in putting two harpoons into a whale but the whale sounded then breached under the boat, capsizing it. In the midst of the turmoil a kink of line got caught around the boatsteerer's leg and as the whale took off, the sailor's leg was nearly severed from his body and he died later of his injuries.
Once the harpoon rope was played out and the whale began to race away, the whaleboat would be dragged along with it at dizzying speed. The larger the whale, the faster the "Nantucket sleigh ride". After expending all its energy, the whale would slow down enough for the whaleboat to get close enough for it to be killed.
Herbert Hoover Presidential LIbrary and Museum