The Tancook Whalers Part I — Evolution

by editor

Damn good boats, them Tancook whalers!” photo cea10412-fd8b-4f8a-a913-229a416f1eba_zps9ef94c7e.jpg

Photo credit ~ Steve McAllister

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“Per ardua ad astra”  

Through the  fog to the stars

by Lance R. Lee

Almost eighty years after the 16-year old Vernon Langille and his father, caught in a severe blow, worked a 40′ whaler back up to Tancook Island, Nova Scotia, another of these handsome little double enders, name after Langille, was caught on the Maine coast in what her skipper estimated to be 40 knots. Under job and a double-reefed main, she was overcanvassed. Under foresail alone with three reefs, she was able to work back up to windward and was maneuverable, stable, and dry. She was proof of a fine design, more than a little out of the ordinary, which evolved perhaps to its peak in the mouth of Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, some ten years after the turn of the century.

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No one has exceeded Ernest Bell in evoking the strengths of the Tancooks:

Shortly, through the fog, appeared brown sails (their sails were nearly always tanned) and a white hull, between 40 and 50 feet long. The boat seemed to approach slowly, to hesitate a moment, and then to leap past in the manner of boats passing at sea – a phenomenon of which Conrad remarks in “Chance.” But there was time to observe two or three men in yellow oilskins, the helmsman standing with the end of the great ten-foot tiller behind his back, lifted slightly form the comb, and the load of barrels and boxes partly covered by a tarpaulin or, more likely, by the brown staysail (it was not set) in her waist… They were then close abourd. The tiller was swung a trifle to weather; the loose-footed overlapping foresail filled with an audible snap, and away she went, at eight or nine knots, her lee rail occasionally awash, and with a smoothness and lack of fuss in that broken water which, somehow, no other boat has ever seemed to me quite able to obtain – and I have known some good ones! … My friend… remarked … “Damn good boats, them Tancook whalers!” (Yachting, February, 1933)

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Photo credit ~ Bob Curtis

Where did they come from? That coast is less given to record keeping than producing striking workboat types, so we had to pair a modest amount of sleuthing with some educated guesses. The best sleuthing was done in Langille’s bare kitchen, splendidly chaotic boatshop, and the crammed loft above. His grandfather, born circa 1832, is credited with building the original Tancook whalers so Langille believed they developed as early as 1840 or 1850. In November, 1977, apprentices Joe Postich and Mark Swanson and I crowded round a battered trunk half-filled with Langille’s half models and steadily fed historical and technical questions to as young an 89-year old as we will ever encounter. We carried away in our green pickup memories, knowledge, and inspiration that will last us the rest of our lives.

With that knowledge, some guesses and the guidance of David Foster, master builder of The Apprenticeshop in Bath, we built a 36′ Tancook. We named her Vernon Langille and sailed her down that untamed coast to take him for a sail in the high summer of ’79. To our great sorrow, Langile had dies just a few days before, so the following day, as a memorial, we took his son Cecil for that promised sail. Then in the fog wisps and mild soft light of an early Nova Scotian evening, we ghosted across the mouth of Mahone Bay.

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In doing so we crossed the track – wake, if you will – of the Evangeline, another whaler, just fifty-two years after she sailed west from that bay. She carried the lines, the heritage, and the inspiration of the Tancooks to the United States where several chapters of the Tancook evolution were to take place in the ’30s, ’40s, and later.

Two brothers, Bill and Derek Lee, bought Evangeline for $150 in 1927 and sailed her to Cape Cod. Bill Lee with Walter Cross took her lines and laid down and built the 30′ Wind Dog, first of many American Tancooks evolved from Evangeline. (The Nova Scotian was later fished single-handed on the back side of Monomoy as the Whistling Cat and employed as a rum runner in Chatham Roads.) That evolution continued in the work of Sam Crocker, Ralph Wyley, and George Stadel, associated with Langille in Nova Scotia over inspiring years.

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The Tancook “Laura S.,” under Tod Lee (brother of Lance Lee)’s surveillance, Cape Cod, 1940

The link between two cultures – a Canadian workboat world which fished hard, “droughing” on the Peak and the Ridges, fishing grounds 20 miles to seaward of Tancook, and a pleasure craft realm in the States – was Evangeline.

What of the first most significant decades of the story? It may be a full circle tale in that the ancestors of the Tancook whaler may have been American…

Of the term whalers: While whaling was most certainly never part of the Tancook fisheries, it was extensively carried on throughout the mouth of the Saint Lawrence. According to Samuel Eliot Morison in European Discovery of America- The Northern Voyages, whaling operations were in full swing in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence as early as 1527. “They pursued their quarry in a big pulling boat, harpooned the whale, and towed his carcass ashore where it was rendered into oil in big iron cauldrons.” (p. 478)

The small open boats of the North American fisheries evolved from the laws of usage and adapted to the regional demands and the type of fishery. Since whaling was an ealry fishery and continued well into the 19th century on that coast, it seems likely that whaleboats of varying designs had their part in the development of the Tancook.

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Drawing by Sam F. Manning

The whalers probably rose from a long-standing double ender tradition traceable to European craft including the Dutch pinques, the French chaloupes and the shallops of the English and the Basques. Translated to the New World, these ancestors evolved into the Chebacco boats, Cowhorns, and later  Nomans Land boats, Isle au Shoals, Hampton whalers, pinkys, Quoddy boats, and the Gaspe (Canada) boats or pinques.

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From top left and clockwise, Block Island Cowhorn, Crotch Island Pinky, Hampton Whaler, Tancook Whaler, and Noman’s Land Boat. Drawing by Sam F. Manning

The practice of American fishermen going east and north for the rich fishing of the Bay de Cahleur on the Gaspe and the Banks was widespread. In Sloops and Shallops, William Baker comments, “These waters were much frequented by New England fishermen in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.” This is further supported by George Audubon’s comment in Delineations of American Scenery and Character published in 1842:

A vessel of one hundred tons or so is provided with a crew of twelve men, who are usually expert sailors and fishers and for every couple of these handy tars, a Hampton boat is provided. 

Hampton Boats lie in an article by Phelps Soule in the April 1941, American Neptune:

. . . earlier settlers in Maine had, to a large degree, used whaleboats, or as the smaller ones were called, reach boats, in the fisheries. . . . Then as the fishermen began to go further out to sea, more powerful boats were wanted. The demand was supplied by a shipbuilder at Seabrook, New Hampshire, named Enoch Chase. . . . These boats found favor and for years the type was built by Chase and later the Locke Bros., both of Hampton, Seabrook district, New Hampshire. Of course, Maine builders soon began to copy the design. 

The Hampton boats migrated to the offshore fisheries as they were seaworthy enough to work from a mothership on the Banks. This leads to our major premise: The Tancook whaler may have begun with the Hampton whaler. Hampton whalers were double enders and predated Hampton boats which were square sterned. In drawings which to my knowledge have not been published, Howard Chapelle recorded what he believed to be the earliest square stern, circa 1860, and credited her to P.A. Durgin, son of Ebenezer of Harpswell, Maine. The earlier Hampton whalers were probably “sown” in the maritimes through their sale in Newfoundland, Cape Breton Island, and Labrador and inspired the little-known Labrador whalers. Goode, writing in 1887, ties the Hamptons and the term “Labrador boat” with both the persistent echo of “whaleboat” and the fisheries of the broad region of the mouth of the Saint Lawrence.

The average length was about 19 feet on the keel and 23 feet over all, lapstraked, very sharp forward and aft, and with a straight stern-post. They were generally provided with two masts and rigged with sprit or leg-o’-mutton sails. These boats were stowed upon deck two on each side, with one swung upon the davits at the stern. (The Fishing Industries of North America, Vol. III, page 137)

From a further study of Chapelle’s unpublished Labrador whaler drawings, we suspect that these boats were too narrow and incapable of holding the volume of fish caught. Thus it seems fair to suspect that they gave way to the Tancook whalers between 1860 and 1880, perhaps sooner as Langille suggested.

As to the credibility of the boats being sold off in the maritimes and thus “sown,” Morison notes the following European practice in the very early fisheries of Renews Harbor, Newfoundland:

This place served French fishermen as a secondhand boat exchange. Since shore fishing was done mostly from small boats it was convenient to pick up chaloupes in Newfoundland and then turn them in before returning home, rather than encumber the deck and risk losing them in a storm. (European Discovery, p. 422)

The evolution probably occurred like this: The Hampton is a burdensome, if sea kindly, craft. Very likely, a fisherman of bold temperament waited only as long as it took to get home before building or ordering the far more extreme, narrower, obviously faster, and more weatherly Labrador whaler. When she proved too tender in the tough going of the mouth of the Saint Lawrence and too small for his catch, he’d fall back on more beam, increase the waterline length, but keep the extreme ends to retain some of the weatherliness and speed of the Labradors. Result: The Tancook.

In the late ’70s the lines of the Vernon Langille were gotten out from a block of pine in the Tancook method by apprentice Mark Swanson. Her purposes were education, sustaining the folk artistry of two nations, and support of a non-profit cultural program. She was used for sail training and for four years hauled payload freight to defray considerable of her operating costs. . . . “Damn good boats, them Tancook whalers!”

Construction of the Vernon Langille at The Apprenticeshop in Bath, in the late 1970s:

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Painting by Yvon Le Corre