In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, whalers left their home ports in England and mainland Scotland in late February or March heading for the Arctic fishing grounds. Many of them stopped at Shetland, which is about a third of the way between ports such as Whitby and the edge of the ice where Bowhead whales spent the summer months. There they picked up supplies, spent a day or two adjusting ballast, but most importantly they collected men to complete their crews. In some cases almost half the crew of a Hull whaleship would consist of ‘Shetland Men’ who had a reputation for good seamanship, especially in small open rowing boats.
It is not immediately obvious why a man from Shetland would be prized over one from any number of fishing villages on the east coast of England or Scotland, or at least it wasn’t to me until I visited Shetland and found out about the Sixareen, a six-oared boat with a prow at each end used for fishing, and its smaller cousins, Yoals, Fourareens and haddock boats. These boats, many of which were imported from Norway before 1830–Shetland has very few trees–were used on fishing trips, sometimes with a small sail to supplement the effort of the rowers. Sixareens were used for deep-sea fishing on trips lasting three days or more. Shetland’s lack of roads at that time also meant that it was quicker and easier to travel around by sea than over land so they were also used for general transport around the islands for people as well as animals and other cargo. Sixareens and Yoals, or boats like them, are now used for racing.
I’m far from an expert in the details of these boats, but the similarity between the smaller, narrower Yoal and a whaleboat is striking, and Shetland men, besides being used to spending time at sea in small open boats, must have been physically well prepared for rowing at speed for long periods. In contrast, whaleship crews from ports in mainland Britain would have less experience, and significantly less long-distance rowing ability.
The boats pictured above are at the Shetland Museum, which is at Hay’s Dock in Lerwick, the last part of Lerwick harbour remaining from the early nineteenth century. Hay’s Dock was new when William Scoresby Jr. and the Arctic whaling fleet anchored in Bressay Sound on their way northward. Scoresby’s aim was to recruit whaleboat crews, but It is intriguing to wonder whether the connection went both ways, and whether Sixareens, Yoals and Fourareens influenced the design of whaleboats themselves.