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Boatsteerer or Harpooner

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Illustration by Juliet Jacobson

The boatsteerer, also called the harpooner, was responsible for making the first strike into the whale. The harpooner had to have a very strong arm; not only did he have to hurl his heavy dart twenty to thirty feet to strike a whale, he also had to serve as an example to the other oarsmen, sitting at the front of the boat and rowing with superhuman strength to gain upon the whale. After he struck the whale with his harpoon, the harpooner changed places with the mate (boatheader) and moved to the back of the boat, steering it while the mate lanced and killed the whale. Harpooners came from varying backgrounds; they were Native Americans, islanders from the South Seas, and African Americans, as well as whites of European descent. They had served on whale ships before, and could demand greater shares of the lay depending on how successful they had been in the past. The Harpooner was a skilled hand and received a lay or share of the profits ranging from 1/75 to 1/90.

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