Whaling declined precipitously in the second half of the 19th century, leaving our Island with a lot of men with specific, well-honed, but obsolete skills sets. While whaling ships were repurposed and sent to distant seas, whaleboats — the small, open rowing craft used to actively hunt whales — remained here in relative abundance. So began the annual whaleboat races in Cottage City.
Whaleboat racing evidently started as a casual Fourth of July event in New Bedford, but it exploded onto the Vineyard scene in 1875, when a Vineyard crew and their vessel, Last of All, accepted an invitation (or perhaps more of a taunt) to compete in an 1875 New Bedford race. The Vineyard boat came in a strong second in a field of eight, losing only to New Bedford’s favorite, Sixth Ward.
A two-mile whaleboat race took place off Oak Bluffs later that summer, as part of a larger Vineyard sailing regatta. The course was supposed to be parallel to the beach for the enjoyment of the crowds, but the waters were so full of spectators on sailboats that they were forced to turn the course perpendicular, marked by a stake boat a mile offshore. Eight boats competed, including the whaleboat Vineyard from Edgartown, steered by Capt. Pease. “The crews were all made up of old whalemen,” observed the Boston Post. Each boat carried six men: three oars on one side, two on the other, and the captain using a long oar to steer. Sixth Ward again came in first place; Vineyard, second. The New Bedford team went on to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia the following year, as whaleboat racing gained national interest.
The Oak Bluffs whaleboat race became an annual event, usually held on or the day before Grand Illumination. The 1876 race was again won by the Sixth Ward crew of New Bedford. It was reported that 7,000 people witnessed that race.
Then Isaac “Ike” Norton of Edgartown, 25-year-old captain of the Island crew, hatched a plan. He hired seasoned Edgartown boatbuilder Uriah Morse to build them a custom whaleboat, one that would never have to go to the Pacific to hunt whales. While its careful design fully complied with the rules, the whaleboat Oak Bluffs had a secret weapon. As Henry Beetle Hough explained in a 1959 article for Sports Illustrated, “What couldn’t be seen was this: Uriah Morse had made the thwarts of oak, and he had put no supports under them.” When the men pulled, their springy seats pulled the sides of the boat in, making it a little narrower and so a little faster.
It worked. In August 1877, Oak Bluffs faced off against Sixth Ward and two other competitors, and easily won the $70 first prize. “The margin by which the famous Sixth Ward had been beaten was sensational,” wrote Hough. Experts scrutinized the boat, but never found Morse’s secret.
Oak Bluffs beat Sixth Ward again in 1878. Edgartown entered a boat too, captained by Jason Luce and named Oak Bluffs Jr., but it came in a poor third.
The two rivals met for one final race in New Bedford in 1879. Hough wrote, “Tradition recounts that [Oak Bluffs] left the Vineyard dock later than the steamboat, overtook her, and rowed ahead of her all the way, a distance of almost 25 miles. It helped some that they did not have to observe channel buoys.” The Vineyard team’s winning time — two miles in 17 minutes, 18 seconds — is said to be the standing record in New Bedford.
Whaleboat races continued into the 1890s, but with lessening fanfare. The Boston Globe reported a Vineyard Haven whaleboat race in 1893 on Lake Tashmoo, with crews participating from West Chop, Makonikey, Gay Head, and Nantucket, and ending with a “grand clambake.”
In 1896, newspapers began reporting a “mysterious demand” for whaleboats, accompanied by a tenfold spike in their value, all along the New England coast. “Boats which were thought good for nothing but kindling wood command a large price, and in fact at present are unobtainable,” reported the Buffalo Commercial. In an article titled “Mysterious Cubans Buying Whaleboats,” the Buffalo paper explained, “A rather strange and foreign-appearing person turned up along shore inquiring about these craft, and purchasing heavily. He succeeded in creating a corner in whaleboats, and now there are very few to be had at any price. He is undoubtedly an agent of the Cuban insurgents. It is said these craft will be used in landing arms and ammunition from the filibusters as they near the Cuban coast. They will probably load these boats with their cargo and row quickly ashore, take their goods from them and leave the boats to rot on the beach or to be proudly captured by the Spanish soldiers.”
The mysterious purchasers’ route reportedly included the Vineyard that year, buying whaleboats and any other open boats which could be pressed into service by the Cubans. The Cuban War of Independence had begun, and Americans were generally sympathetic with the Cuban rebels. The conflict would soon lead to the Spanish-American War, but it may have been the last race for many Vineyard whaleboats.
New Bedford continued whaleboat racing on a smaller scale for a few more decades, but the days of the grand Oak Bluffs race were over. George Fred Tilton of Chilmark, caretaker of what would become the last surviving whaling ship, organized a racing team in Dartmouth with one of the Charles W. Morgan’s whaleboats around 1930. Another race of the Morgan’s newly built whaleboats took place in 2014 in Vineyard Haven. One old whaleboat that didn’t end up in Cuba is Uriah Morse’s winning vessel — it can be found today in the collection of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released June 1.