Whaling and whale boats played an important part in Portland’s economy in the early years of European settlement. Whaleboats were central to the whaling industry, Portland’s main industry in the 1830’s and early 1840’s.
The whaling industry at Portland was established in the early 1830’s. It was bay whaling where whaleboats were rowed out from the shore whaling stations to hunt migrating whales or female whales entering the bay to give birth.
There was intense competition between rival whaleboat crews and even between boats working for the same firm, as each crew member of a successful boat received a percentage of the whale’s value. There were also complicated rules or conventions as to which crew got what in case of a shared kill or if they were required to undertake a rescue and suchlike.
The Australian colonial whaleboats usually followed the American pattern- double-ended and up to 11 metres in length. These speedy graceful boats had rowlocks for five or six oars, with a long steering oar located at the stern.
They were often brightly painted, with vital gear well-stowed to avoid cluttering the boat during the chase and kill. Most whaleboats had a crew of six, the most important crewman being the steersman and harpooner.
Whilst being a member of a whaleboat crew was prestigious and financially rewarding, it was demanding and dangerous work. There was a long, hard and fast row after their prey. After being harpooned whales fled at speed and loops of fast running rope could take a crewman overboard or remove limbs with ease.
Some badly wounded whales charged whaleboats, with hunters becoming the hunted. Other whales sounded or submerged so deeply that the whaleboats and crews were dragged well beneath the waves. At the death, the thrashing of the whales huge flukes could smash boats, killing or injuring the hunters. Much time was spent in the off-season maintaining and repairing whaleboats for the upcoming season. In order to keep top whaleboat crews intact, some firms employed them as kangaroo shooters or wattle-bark cutters along the coast during the off-season.
Each whaling firm had several whaleboats in action. In 1837 for example, there were some thirty whaleboats on the water. During the 1839 whaling season sixty whaleboats were at work in the bay.
In later years of whaling at Portland Bay, whaleboats spent many hours offshore in order to be near at hand if a whale appeared.
Industrial whaling in Portland came to an end in the late 1940’s and sporadic whaling continued through until the 1860’s. Whaleboats were then pot to use in other ways or left to rot on the shore. Many whaleboats survived well beyond the whaling era and were used for other purposes including occasional whaleboat races.
In 1872 at the Port Fairy Regatta, Tulloh’s crew in the “Blue-Eyed Maid” a Portland whaleboat won the whaleboat race, In 1873, the same whaleboat was rowed to victory in the Portland Carnival. There were whaleboat races at the 1881 Portland Regatta with “amateur” and “general” categories. Both had substantial cash prizes.
Today, Portland has a replica whaleboat built and rowed by the Promoting Portland Maritime Heritage Group. Constructed on a traditional design and lines, this whaleboat was launched in 2010 and is a regular presence in competitions and at special events such as Portland’s Upwelling Festival.
The whaleboat, named in honor of Portland pioneer William Dutton