Introduction to Reading Logbooks and Journals - New Bedford Whaling Museum

Introduction to Reading Logbooks and Journals

By Rachel Adler, Intern, New Bedford Whaling Museum

Introduction to Whaling Logbooks and Journals

By Rachel Adler, Intern, New Bedford Whaling Museum
Digitized logbooks from the Museum’s collection

A logbook is the official record of the activities of a whaling voyage. It was the duty of the chief (first) mate (also just called “mate”) to keep the log on a daily basis.

It includes the position of the vessel, the sail she was under, the wind speed and direction, the activities of the crew, and any whales seen or taken. In contrast, a journal was an unofficial document that could be kept by anyone. Often journals were written similarly to logbooks, with daily entries giving the same information contained in a logbook, and in some cases the only way to determine if something is a logbook or a journal is to check the name of the author against the crew list and see if it was written by the chief mate.

Whaling logbooks and journals give a unique perspective as to what life was like aboard a whaling vessel. Like many old documents they are not as accessible as modern writing, being handwritten in cursive, often on paper that has been damaged over the years, sometimes in pencil or faded ink, and the writers usually did not use standardized spelling. Nevertheless, a lot of valuable information can be found inside these records of past whaling voyages, and as such they deserve our attention and are worth the effort that it takes to read them.

Fortunately, the entries in a whaling logbook or journal usually follow some common patterns, and once you know what to look for it is a lot easier to decipher what you read. Here is a detailed explanation of the things that are found in typical whaling logbook or journal entries.

The beginning of an entry

Most entries will start with the day of the week and date. From there, they will have an introductory phrase, the most common ones being “comes with,” “commences with,” “these 24 [h]ours,” “[on] this day,” or “first part.” The log keeper (also known as just “keeper”) will then describe the weather, which usually includes the wind speed and location. He often will write about the weather again in the later part of the day.

Typical activities for a crew member

The keeper will write what activities he and the rest of the crew performed throughout the day. On most days the crew would not be whaling, but would be employed in various types of work on the vessel. They could adjust sails (see the glossary below), clean various parts of the vessel, paint the vessel or the boats, “stow” (store) casks of food and other supplies, “break out” (bring up) supplies, pump out water, or repair parts of the vessel. They also sometimes wrote they were employed in “ship’s duty” which could mean any of the above activities. Crew members spent hours making twine (called “spunyarn”). Some were craftsmen like blacksmiths, coopers, or carpenters. Sometimes the crew would spend time “scrimshonting” or created scrimshaw, though the latter activity was rarely documented.

Encounters with marine life

Whalers also kept a lookout for marine life. They encountered many types of whales, as well as dolphins, porpoises, and “grampuses.”1 The main types of whales2 encountered were blackfish, blue whales (sulfur bottoms), bowhead whales (polar whales), finback whales (finners or fin whales), gray whales, humpback whales, killer whales (thrashers), right whales (black whales), sperm whales, and white whales (belugas).

  • Blackfish (Globicephala macrorhynchus): Blackfish, also called pilot whales, were commonly encountered and hunted.
  • Blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus): Blue whales commonly called “sulfur bottoms” are the largest known animal in existence. Yankee whalers typically did not go after blue whales due to their size ans speed in the water, though these whales were hunted starting in the mid 19th century.
  • Bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus): Bowhead hunting by American whalers in the Western Arctic started in 1848. They live in the Arctic Ocean and were commonly hunted in the mid-18th century in the Eastern Arctic. They were a popular target for whalers because they swam slowly and floated when killed. They also have really large baleen (up to 14.6 feet long and 14 inches wide), which in the 19th century was commonly used as a strong and flexible component for certain items such as hoop skirts.
  • Finback whales (Balaenoptera physalus): Finback whales were usually just observed and not hunted because they swam too fast to be caught by American whaling ships.
  • Gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus): Also known as devil fish,3 ripsacks, scamperdowns, mussel-diggers, and California grays. Sometimes these whales were hunted.
  • Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae): Humpback whales were sometimes hunted. The oil they produced was not as nice or as plentiful as that of other whales, so many whalers overlooked them when they had other options.
  • Killer whales (Orcinus orca): Whalers did not usually hunt killer whales, but would sometimes see them on voyages.
  • Right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) (Eubalaena japonica) & (Eubalaena australis): Often written as “rite,” “wright,” or “write,” whales, sometimes these were called black whales.) They were a targeted species worldwide including the North Pacific Ocean and Okhotsk Sea.
  • Sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus): Sperm whales were primary targeted species because they produced oil considered to be superior to that of other whales. The females and their calves inhabit tropical waters. The males can be found in any ocean but are solitary, whereas the females usually stay in groups.
  • White whales (probably Beluga whales) (Delphinapterus leucas): Whalers sometimes encountered white whales, but did not usually hunt them during the 19th century.
  • Unspecified whales: a lot of time journal keepers did not write what types of whales they saw or took. Sometimes these can be inferred from context (e.g. if they were in the Arctic Ocean they probably saw a bowhead whale), but sometimes it is unclear what type of whale they saw.
  • Grampuses, porpoises, dolphins, walruses and seals: Whalers also encountered these animals as well. They usually did not catch grampuses and dolphins, but often did hunt porpoises, walruses, and seals. When they hunted walruses they would catch up to as many as 75 walruses a day.


When a whale was “raised” that is, spied from aloft either spouting, turning flukes or breaching out of the water, the crew men would then “lower away” the whales (short for lowering the whale boats from the vessel to the water). A whaling vessel could have between three and five whale boats: the bow boat, waist boat, larboard boat, starboard boat and sometimes a starboard bow boat. Each boat was staffed by six men; five would row the boat and the sixth, the boat-header, would steer. He would also be responsible for killing the whale after the boat-steerer harpooned it. Sometimes the boat’s crew “struck and drew” meaning that the iron came out and they lost the whale. They also “struck and sunk,” meaning the whale sunk to the bottom of the ocean and was lost. Sometimes the whale “took the line,” which is to say they swam away with the harpoon and rope still attached, and were able to get it free from the whale boat. When a whaling boat was successful they “saved” or “took” (caught) the whale and “took it alongside” the ship. They would then “cut [the whale] in,” cutting the whale’s flesh into many smaller pieces so it could be brought onboard. They would then spend the next several hours and sometimes days boiling the blubber in order to turn it into oil. The oil was then stowed in casks. They would also take the whale bone and scrape it clean, and then bundle it for sale.

Encounters with other vessels

Whalers also encountered other vessels. Sometimes they would “speak” another vessel, which means they would call out to the other vessel as they passed by it. Occasionally they would “gam,” which means the captains and first officers, and occasionally other crew members, would go on board and visit the other vessel. Sometimes they just exchanged signals, that is, flew flags of a certain kind that conveyed specific messages.
A ship is a specific type of whaling vessel. Whaling vessels were distinguished by what type of rigging they had. The main types of whaling vessels were ships, barks (also spelled “barque”), brigs, and schooners. Additionally there were brigantines and sloops. Occasionally vessel would encounter barkentines in the Western Arctic, but these were rarely used for whaling voyages. Later vessels that used steam power were usually referred to as “steamers” but also had the traditional rigging, so there are steam barks, steam barkentines, steam brigs, steam brigantines, and steam schooners. All of these fell under the heading of steamer, and thus if a keeper mentions a steamer there is no way of telling what kind of steam vessel they saw or interacted with without looking the vessel up.4

Land and land activities

Whaling vessels would often make port, or set anchor and go ashore. Sometimes it can be difficult to figure out the place in question because the place was known by a different name then than it is now, the keeper had poor handwriting, the keeper spelled the place incorrectly, or because place names are less commonly found than other words in whaling logbooks and journals, which makes them harder to recognize. The longitude and latitude of a ship can be used to find a place, but that information is not always readily available. Mapping out the route that the vessel followed is another good way of deciphering a place name.

In order to get to a port, whaling vessels would often employ the services of a pilot. The pilot was someone who was very familiar with the waters in the area and not a member of the crew. When on land whalers would acquire provisions (especially food), would be “at liberty” (i.e. given time off), would socialize with the crew of other vessels at that port, would hunt, or would interact with indigenous people in the area. A common problem while on land was desertion; crew members would run away from the ship mid-voyage because they did not enjoy life aboard a whaling ship. Complaints included quality of food, the difficulty of the work, and homesickness. Sometimes deserters would be caught and punished, but often they got away. Captains would often “ship” (send home) oil that they had collected, putting it aboard vessels that were going to head home. They also shipped men who were ill or injured and unable to perform their duties.

During the last decade of the 19th century, many whalers who were traveling in the North Pacific and Arctic oceans “wintered” (spent the winter) on Herschel Island in the Beaufort Sea. They would stay there for several months between whaling seasons. The crews of the different vessels got together and played baseball and board games, had dances, ate together, and socialized in general. They also hunted for food together, and men would go on hunting expeditions that typically lasted for a few days. Unfortunately, this cold climate was dangerous, and many men succumbed to frostbite or died of the cold while wintering on Herschel Island.

Notable events

The activities mentioned thus far are normal on whaling voyages, but there were a lot of other events that happened as well, and these are detailed in many journals and some logbooks. Accidents at sea were very common, often leading to the injury or death of crewmen. Sometimes the books include descriptions of shipboard medicine that was performed on crew members, which included treatment for scurvy and amputations (the latter usually for frostbite). Sometimes captains would bring aboard their wives and children, and occasionally they appear in logbooks and journals. Occasionally crew members would fight with each other or speak disrespectfully of the captain or officers. This would result in punishment, usually by being tied in the rigging, flogged, and/or put in irons (manacles). Shipwrecks also happened, as well as vessels being trapped in ice while in the Arctic Ocean and sometimes subsequently being abandoned.

Stamps and drawings

Some logbooks and journals have drawings and/or stamps in them. Whale stamps were the most common; these are pieces of wood, bone or ivory cut to look like certain species of whales. They would be used to keep track of when whales were taken, or sometimes the keeper would just stamp the tail when a whale had gotten away. However, most log keepers did not use the stamps consistently, and would either not stamp every time they caught a whale, or would sometimes stamp when they had only seen a whale. As such, the whale stamps cannot be reliably used as an indicator of whales seen or taken. Log keepers occasionally used ship stamps (which looked like whaling vessels) to record speaking to and gamming with other vessels. Whale drawings and ship drawings were often used in place of whale and ship stamps. Finally, some logbooks have profile drawings of land masses seen.


Because paper was a valuable resource in the 19th century, sometimes whaling journals would be used for other purposes before, during, or after they were used to record a voyage. They may contain school notes, copies of literature, poetry, or prayers.

Longitude and latitude

Many logbook entries end with the longitude and latitude of where the vessel was that day. Sometimes they also mention the distance they are from certain landmarks, or the barometer readings.

Glossary of terms and phrases frequently mentioned in whaling logbooks


  • Aft- Towards the back end of a vessel.
  • Ballast- Heavy material put on a vehicle to provide stability.
  • Boom- A spar (long and rounded piece of timber) attached to the foot of a fore and aft sail or at the end of the bowsprit.
  • Bow- The front of a vessel.
  • Bowsprit- A spar projecting from the bow, used as an anchor for rigging.
  • Break/broke out- Take out of storage, open up, and use provisions.
  • Cruising- Traveling back and forth across whaling grounds, westward in the morning and eastward at night in order to see whale spouts in a favorable light.
  • Fore- In or towards the front part of a vessel.
  • Forecastle- The upper deck of a whaling vessel forward of the foremast.
  • Foremast- The mast nearest the bow of a vessel.
  • Fore sail- In a square-rigged vessel, the lowest square sail on the foremast.
  • Gaff- The spar to which a four sided fore and aft sail is bent at the head.
  • Hauled/hauling [to]- To change the course of a vessel, especially to sail closer to the wind.
  • Hull- The watertight body of a vessel.
  • Jib- A triangular sail that is set in front of the foremast.
  • Jibboom- A removable spar used for mounting a flying jib.
  • Keel-The foundation timber upon which the rest of the vessel is constructed.
  • Laid up- To be confined.
  • Lee- Area sheltered from the wind, or pertaining to that quarter toward which the wind is blowing.
  • Leeward- Towards the direction where the wind is blowing.
  • Mainsail- A sail located behind the main mast of a sailing vessel.
  • Mast- Vertical pole, erected more or less vertically on center line of a vessel. It may be used to carry sail and necessary spars, derricks, to give necessary height to a navigation light, look out position, signal yard, control position, radio aerial or signal lamp.
  • Mizzen- A mast aft of a vessel’s mainmast, or the lowest sail on a mizzenmast.
  • Oogooroog- Another name for a bearded seal.
  • Pilot- A person who guides a ship to port.
  • Put off- Dismissed from service
  • Reefing- Temporarily reducing the area of a sail exposed to the wind, either to guard against particularly strong winds or slow the speed of a vessel.
  • Royal- Mast or sail next above the topgallant.
  • Spanker-Fore and aft sail, spread to a gaff and boom, on after side of after mast of a ship or bark.
  • Spar- A long and rounded piece of timber; a general name for any yard, gaff, or boom.
  • Stay- Rigging running fore and aft to support the mast in those directions.
  • Steaming- Traveling using steam power, as opposed to only using sails and wind.
  • Stem- The extension of the keel to the forward end of a vessel
  • Stern- Back end of a vessel.
  • Tack- Lower foremost corner of a fore and aft sail.
  • Tacking- Navigating in a zig-zag manner to sail directly into the wind.
  • Topgallant- The mast or sail above the tops.
  • Topsail- The second sail (counting from the bottom) up a mast.
  • Trying out- The process of boiling out of the blubber.
  • Under all sail- To travel with all sails fully exposed to the wind.

Bibliography & Endnotes

Ashley, C. W. (1938). The Yankee Whaler. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Dana, R. H. (1841). The Seaman’s friend. Boston, MA: Charles C. Little & James Brown, and Benjamin Lording & Co.

Hall, E. W. (1982). Sperm Whaling from New Bedford. New Bedford, MA: Old Dartmouth Historical Society.

Layton, C. W. T. (1955). Dictionary of Nautical Words and Terms. Glasgow: Brown, Son & Ferguson, Ltd.

Lodi, E. (2005). Nantucket Sleigh Ride: A Notebook of Nautical Expressions. Middleborough, MA: Rock Village Publishing.

Lund, J. N., Josephson, E. A., Reeves R. R., and Smith, T. D. (2010). American Offshore Whaling Voyages 1667 to 1927. Volume I: Voyages by Vessel. New Bedford, MA: New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Lund, J. N., Josephson, E. A., Reeves R. R., and Smith, T. D. (2010). American Offshore Whaling Voyages 1667 to 1927. Volume II: Voyages by Master. New Bedford, MA: New Bedford Whaling Museum.


1  No one is quite sure what log keepers were speaking of when they mention “grampuses” but they are referring to some small cetaceans.
2  Or whale-like cetaceans
3  Not to be confused with the devil ray (Mobula mobular) which is also sometimes called a devil fish.
Starbuck, A. (1989). History of the American Whale Fishery. Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books.
4  A good source for this is Judy Lund’s American Offshore Whaling Voyages 1667 to 1927 (volumes I and II).