Nantucket Whalemen in the Deep-sea Fishery: the Changing Anatomy of an Early American Labor Force,

On the whaling journey of the brig Polley to West Africa in 1774, and in particular one of its crew, Samuel Atkins, who wrote some poetry about the journey: Steadily the nerves of unlucky whalemen were worn down by loneliness, boredom, and the knowledge that the vessel would have to remain at sea until a reasonable haul of oil had been taken in (p. 278).

p. 279-80 describes a four month period from July to October: Throughout those four months, short bursts of activity interspersed themselves between the longer periods of waiting and watching that had characterized the earlier stretch. Even during this, the most productive part of the voyage, two days in three were filled with nothing but the regular chores ordered by the captain and mate: setting the sails and swabbing the deck; mending the whaleboats, rigging, and spars; and on one occasion careening the vessel and scrapping her hull. Like treading water, such tasks were necessary to the life of the voyage, but they contributed little that was tangible toward its successful completion, nor were they enough to keep thirteen men occupied.

“What filled their minds through the empty hours?” What Vickers suggests is they spent time on journals and diaries, doggerel poetry, and reflection on the pleasures of home and female companionship. The boredom worsened as cruises lengthened from daily offshore cruises, to months, and eventually to years: “The boredom, the discomfort of cramped quarters, the unsavory diet, and above all the restrictions on one’s freedom that spending time at sea entailed could be borne easily enough in small doses, especially when balanced against the exhilaration of the chase. But as the novelty of whaling wore off and as the weeks of confinement gradually turned into months, the sameness of each passing day began to bear heavily on their minds.” (p. 282). The rest of this article is about the economics, and particularly the staffing of the whaling industry.