Monday, May 30, 2011

Our Whaling Heritage

We recently received a donation from Di Adams of some whale oil in two old bottles - one a very 1960’s or 70’s style Schweppes Low Calorie Lemonade bottle complete with a plastic topped cork stopper! The oil had come from her father George ‘Mack’ Adams, who had worked in the early whaling industry, as had his brother Charles ‘Pat’ Adams. A number of years ago Pat wrote down his account of an accident that occurred in 1939 aboard the whale boat “Lanic”. His son Robert, ‘Punga’ Adams, kindly donated a copy to the museum. There are so many stories that come from Norfolk’s whaling past – and the museum has a number of objects on display to help with their telling. However reading Pat’s account of what it was actually like out there in the open sea in one of the New Bedford style whale boats really highlights the dangers faced and the skill of the Norfolk men in those early whaling days:

“It was late 1938 Whaling Season that I took the place of my Grandfather, John (Rigger) Adams, as a crew in the boat “Gwendoline”, built by the late Mr Tom (Pert) Quintal, named after Gwendoline Menzies, now Mrs Bert Bergagnin. The boat captained by Thornton (Bobo) Yager with his crew, Boatsteer, William (Mancy) Edwards, Augustine (Hares) Adams, Victor (Mate Bob) Edwards, Tom (Farmer) Quintal, Ernest (Bera) Quintal and myself Charlie (Pat) Adams. There were two other boats in the Company, Louis Battaile’s “Advance” and Nathan (Shunnah) Quintal’s “Lanic”.

1939. I had a full season and it was a wonderful experience which I will never forget. The day commenced at 8.00am. As soon as the boats are cleared of the jetty, the Captain or some other crew member would offer a prayer, asking for the safety of the boats and its crews – then again at lunch time Grace was always said.

Early one morning we were the first boat launched – about 500yds out from the Cascade Jetty, a school of whales came up alongside the boat – our Boatsteerer immediately harpoon a whale, and the boat was Fast .

It was one o’clock before the “Advance” and “Lanic” caught up with us, some of the experienced boatmen took a few of our places in the fast boat, Gus (Hares) and myself were transferred to the “Lanic”. It was soon noticed that the harpoon rope was wrapped around the whale’s tail, making it hard for those trying to kill the whale getting near enough to lance it. So we in the “Lanic” was given the job to try and get a harpoon into the whale – Gus (Hares) Adams was in the Captain’s position and Jimmy (Bill) Edwards Boatsteerer.

Suddenly the whale surfaced, hitting the “Lanic”, knocking Andrew (Peak) Evans into the water, and myself up into the Rope Tub. On sounding, the whale once again hit the “Lanic”, taking a V shape out of the boat where I was rowing, before I was knocked into the Rope Tub. Henry (Seymour) Buffett who was rowing the Midship Oar, the oar was broken when the whale hit it, Henry had ribs broken and he was badly injured, he was worried with the injury for the rest of his life. The “Lanic” was badly holed and Ernest (Reuben) Christian, Andrew (Peak) Evans and myself was given the task to sail the “Lanic” with Henry Buffett, injured, back to Cascade Jetty.

We were about seven miles off Steele’s Point, only able to use the jib sail, as we had to be careful to keep the water from entering the boat – luckily the sea was calm. We had the Distress flag, or Wave, up and those on the cliffs soon picked the Wave up, and knew we have had an accident. A few miles from shore Darky Douran, in his launch “Gordina” took us in tow and safely landed us at Cascades. Unfortunately the whale was lost after nine hours of hard work.

There were only two boats available for a week until the “Lanic” was repaired. There is a movie film of this Fast Boat and accident to the “Lanic”, taken by the late Jimmy Mitchell and his daughter, Pat Magri, may still have it.

After each whale is safely handed over to the Shore Crews, the boat crews and those on shore and on the cliff tops would sing the ‘Doxology’, “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow”. And when we are towing late in the evenings people would light fires on the cliffs to help pilot us to land. Thus the wonderful old Whaling Hymn “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning” was always sung.

Sadly after the passing of my great friend and mate, Charles (Tene) Menzies, a few years ago, I think I am the last of the “Old Hand Harpoon Whalers”, boat crew.

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