Posted by: Rob Viens | August 18, 2012

Whalers on the Beagle

On August 18th the seas were still up (and down) as Darwin noted:

“Several officers are on shore & cannot yet come off.— The Captain however ventured to sail to Rat Island to obtain sights. It was beautiful to see how the whale-boat hops over the sea.— In returning he carried away the yard of his sail.” (Aug 18)

Darwin’s mention of the whaleboats here reminds me that I have not discussed one of the most import tools of a 19th century survey ship – its small open boats.

Whaleboat – this one is from New England, but similar to what would have been on the Beagle (from Wikipedia Commons):


Smaller boats were an essential tool of the survey ship, allowing explorations and measurements to be made in shallow waters, inlets, river mouths and anywhere near shore where a large ship would run the risk of damaging the hull or running aground. On her second voyage, the Beagle carried 7 smaller boats, some of which were specially commissioned by FitzRoy to meet the needs of the expedition.  These included:

  • a 26 foot yawl
  • a 23 foot cutter
  • four whaleboats (2 – 28 footers, 2 – 25 footers)
  • a dingy (or jolly boat)

Yawls, cutters, whaleboats and dingies are all names for small boats.  The names yawl and cutter are generally used to describe small boats that have sails (i.e., sailboats). Typically a yawl is a small boat with two masts while a cutter has only one.  In Darwin’s day these boats almost certainly also had oars, so that they could be rowed when needed. This required careful placement of the mast, so as not to interfere with the motion of the rowers.

Whaleboats (also called whalers) are long thin open boats that are typically propelled with oars (though I suspect the whaleboats on the Beagle could raise a simple temporary sail when needed).  One distinction about whaleboats is that, like a canoe, the front and back of the boat both have narrow pointed ends.  This allows the boat to be rowed in either direction, and means the boat does not have to be physically turned around in order to reverse its direction (it just requires rowing the opposite way). Not surprisingly, this style of boat was also used in whale hunting.

A dingy (also called a jolly boat) is the name used for a small boat carried by another boat.  In the case of the Beagle, this was a small (~15 foot) oar-powered boat that hung off that back end (stern) of the ship. The jolly boat was typically used to transport crew to and from shore or another ship.

1808 drawing of the jolly boat (from Wikipedia Commons)

Jolly Boat

Considering that the Beagle was  a relatively small ship, the placement of 7 small boats on (or around) the deck of the main ship was no simple task. In the case of the Beagle, the yawl rested inside the cutter, which was placed in the middle of the foredeck of the ship. Two of the whaleboats were on “skids”, side-by-side on the back deck of the ship.  Two more whaleboats hung off the side of the ship (one on starboard and one on port) and the dingy hung off the stern. It was no simple task to get all seven boats in the water, though I’m sure an experience crew could do it relatively quickly without much trouble.

Placement of the boats on the Beagle. This fantastic scale replica, by model maker Mike Bass, shows five of the small boats used for surveying.  There would have been one additional whaleboat mirroring the placement of the one on the back deck, and a dingy hanging off the back of the boat.  Notice the cutter stored inside of the yawl on the foredeck.

HMS Beagle Replica by Mike Bass

See more of Mike Bass’ replica on his blog which records his 16-week project building the ship.

I believe all of these boats were built back in England before the Beagle departed, though at least two were constructed by the ship’s carpenter, Jonathan May.  Extra supplies were carried so that if a boat was lost (a common occurrence) the carpenter could build a new one.  Because without the survey boat, the Beagle would have been effectively blind and unable to fulfill its primary mission. (RJV)


  1. […] the 13th, things got really rough and the crew was forced to cut loose one of the whaleboats (see Whalers on the Beagle). The following description of the turmoil, is yet again another example of FitzRoy’s […]

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