The Keuka Whaler - Part One

By Craig Hohm - The Finger Lakes, New York - USA

To Part One To Part Two To Part Three
To Part Four To Part Five To Part Six
To Part Seven To Part Eight To Part Nine
To Part Ten To Part Eleven  

I have a quixotic dream; I see whaleboats on the Fingerlakes of New York.

Some years ago I began to dream about a community rowboat. I imagined a group of people pulling together down the glacial valleys, feeling the lift of the rising wave and the sun on their faces, dedicated to the pursuit of the wild jet ski and its oil. Many towns have rowing clubs: San Francisco Ca, New Bedford MA, Burlington VT; and there are many international efforts to get people rowing together as well, notably the Scilly Isles gigs, and most recently the St Ayles skiff in Scotland.

St Ayles skiff in Scotland

What is it that people hope for when they create these clubs? Exercise in the fresh air, inter-cooperation and competition, re-creating and re-living a local historical tradition? I think there is something more: in this modern world of virtual entertainment and even virtual sports (the Wii syndrome), being in a boat on the water, in whatever weather, is a way to be authentically alive in the environment we come from. On Facebook you will find more acquaintances than friends, more information than intimacy. The virtual is replacing the natural in our daily lives; someone recently said that ours was the first generation to successfully forget that we are living on a planet. Being in a boat is one way to remember, and to find community in the landscape of the natural world. Many of the rowing programs that have begun are for children and young adults ( eg: outward bound), but it seems to me that there are quite a few older folks who long for this experience as well. It is them (and myself) that I have most in mind.

But what sort of boat? I wanted something seaworthy, capable of carrying 4-6, something that could be built inexpensively and something that would fit in, and be able to get out of, my shop. The Scilly gigs, beautiful as they are, are too big.

Scilly gigs

I had considered the Zimmer's mackinaw but found it too small. I liked John Gardner's General Lafayette gig, but I worried it would be too tender for novices. Our lakes are long and narrow, nestled in deep valleys, and the right wind can build an impressive short chop. Often and again my attention would return to the whaleboat.

I bought Willets Ansel's book "The Whaleboat" 25 years ago . I have a theory that certain races of people have evolved in relation to their environment and cultural heritage. If that is so, my Saxon and Irish ancestors were nudging me from behind and saying, " Look a that one, eh? It's a beauty!": canoe stern, high ends, lapstrake; all it needs is a side rudder and you're living history. Six person crew, single banked with two 16' oars to port and one 17' and two 15' oars to starboard (for equal directional drive), and a big steering oar out the back for rapid turns on the rockered hull or sculling in a tight spot. And they sail!

So in 2008 I went to New Bedford to visit the whaling museum and their whaleboat club. The museum had numerous old hulls and the club uses Edey & Duff grp replicas.


I got to pull in one of these and came home with the book "To build a whaleboat" by Erik Ronnberg (to build a model whaleboat, alas), but I was not sold. Someone whispered in my ear that the whaleboat was sturdy and authentic but a bit slow compared to a gig. A few years before I had visited Nick Patch and his rowing gigs in Burlington. These gigs are beautiful, sleek, high ended whitehall-type boats that look like they should have Nelson in the stern sheets: fancy, with rope steering on the yoked rudder.

Nick's Gigs

A year or two of hemming and hawing ensued and then this summer, while making a 15' oar as a test of my committment, the decision resolved: I chose the whaleboat for its Viking ancestry, it's sailing option, and for the certain romance that clings to it's name. Two quotes from Clifford Ashley' book "The Yankee Whaler" clinch my defense: "the whaleboat ... was the best seaboat that man could evolve", (p 59), and "such was the Yankee whaleboat... the most perfect watercraft that ever floated", p 64). Wonder what they look like? Here's a link to the Nantucket club boat.

My plan has always been to build this first boat and hope inspiration strikes someone else. I can envision a whaleboat for every fingerlake (why just one?). I will build the prototype, document the costs and offer the molds out to the next in line. The boat is building at this moment in epoxy lapstrake: black locust frames and keel, and meranti ply for planking.

Frames and keel


The lofting was done using the offsets of the 28' Beetle in ansel's book. the lines were overall quite good except at the keel in stations 2 and 7 where the line was distorted upward by about 1/2"; it looked like it had been propped up at these positions. I realized after set up that the keelson landing on 8 & 9 was in error, failing to take into account the full thickness of the inner stern laminate; thankfully this just meant cutting each a bit shorter

Method: Epoxy Lapstrake

Is this the largest boat ever done this way? Unlike traditional hulls, which flex in a seaway, this will be rigid: how will this effect performance? Some old timer whalers felt the most flexible boats were faster. Does it need ribs and if so how many? lain Oughtred's suggestion was thicker ply on bottom and floors in place of ribs like caledonia yawl. I decide to go with a 1 1/2 wide x 1 1/4 deep rib at each of 9 stations
3' apart. There will be floor timbers perhaps each foot of length. The floor is at three heights in the traditional boat: stern sheets , midsection from station 3-7, and the bow sheets. I plan to fit these in after the hull turns upright.

Still to come: sail rig design; Ansel's data; Pete Culler's split rig; John Leathers book - spritsails and lugsails; lead and ? calculation in long keeled boats - Bolger said less important; traditional sail book - David Nichols; and commissioning whaleboat hardware.

To be continued....


To comment on Duckworks articles, please visit our forum