Shanties and their stories

Page in dry dock - please check back again later~~~

History of the Sea Shanty

The true shanty was a work song to enable the men to “haul”-“stamp”-“heave” and by frequent repetition in choruses-raising a sail or hauling an anchor got the job done. But in the rare periods of time off duty the men would sit on the deck and sing of home-the women left behind or yet to meet! Many also discovered that it was a great way to complain about the Captain and Officers, the food and bad conditions without being punished or lashed “I wasn’t singing about this ship sir” was a favourite excuse.

“A good shantyman is worth ten pressed men” is a famous quote from Stan Hugill, both a working shantyman and a great collector of shanties. The following, by him, sums it up. 

Imagine a square rigger on sailing day and the roar, from The Mate “Aaaall Hands”. The men, some of them the sweepings from the gutter, others seasoned deep water men, would tumble from their bunks, with fat heads and unsteady feet and climb the ladders to the fo’c’slehead. Here they would gather around the capstan. On the command, the capstan bars would be shipped in the scarlet pigeon holes; the bars would be breasted and with a shuffling gait the men would commence the long walk and heave around the trundle head. Until this moment The Mate would be in ignorance as to the seaman like qualities of the “crowd”. Seeing that they had been brought aboard by the boarding house masters, the evening before. Most, if not all, in various states of drunkenness. Looking up from his sidelong inspection of the anchor chain as the links slowly emerged from the river The Mate would cup his hands to his mouth and roar “Who’s the bloody nightingale among yer, are ye men or cawpsies ? If there’s a shanty man among yer fer gawds sake strike a light ” In answer to this challenge from the cavernous throat of some true son of Neptune comes the hurricane reply...

“ Oh say wuz you never dahn Ri-i-o Grande ?“

The refrain, a bit seedy at first, comes from half of the heaving men.

“ Wa-a-ay dahn Ri-o!”

The self imposed shantyman now gets into his stride.

“Where the water runs down golden sand!”

The sailormen, taking heart, bring in a fuller and beefier refrain.

“For we’re bound for The Ri-o Grande”.

A satisfied smile crosses the lips of The Mate. He’s got a good crowd; the shanty tells him that. “When the men sing right, the ship goes right” was the old sea adage.

ROlLing down to old Maui

As Introduced and Performed by John Charlish:

It’s a rough tough life, full of toil and strife
We whaler men undergo
But we don’t give a damn when the whalings done
How hard those winds do blow
For we’re homeward bound,
it’s a damn fine sound,
With our good ship taught and free
And we won’t give a damn
when we drink our rum with the girls of old Maui


Rolling down to Old Maui me boys,
Rolling down to Old Maui

For we’re homeward bound from the Arctic ground
Rolling down to Old Maui

We’ve often sailed, through that Arctic Gale
Through the ice and wind and rain
Those tropic fronds and those island lands
will soon be ours again
Six hellish months we have spent up north,
in that cold Kamchatka sea
Now were homeward bound, from the Arctic ground
as we steer for Old Maui


We’ll heave the lead,
when old Diamond Head
Looms up off Old Wahu
Our masts and yards they were sheathed with ice
and our decks were hid from view
The horrid ice of the sea-caked isles,
that deck that Arctic Sea
Are far behind, in that Frozen wind,
as we sail for Old Maui


How soft the breeze,
in the Southern Seas,
now the ice is far astern
Those tropic glades and those island maids
are awaiting our return
Even now their big brown eyes look out,
for a hoping for to see
Our baggy sails running ‘ fore the gales,
as we race to Old Maui


And now we are anchored in the bay
with those Kanakas all around
They greet us with their soft aloha,
Oh it is a pleasing sound.
And soon we’ll be on shore me boys,
and we’ll paint those beaches red
And we’ll wake in the arms of a native girl,
with a big fat aching head

Chorus ROlLing down to old Maui

As Introduced and Performed by John Charlish:

This is a whaling forebitter telling of the trials of whaling in the northern Pacific and the welcome return to the ports of Hawaii, to “Old Maui”. There are a number of different recordings and transcriptions of this song and the one I sing comes from the work of Stan Rogers.  Research suggests that it is a song created from the journal of the whaling ship, the Atkins Adams and dated 1858.

 It was originally known as Rolling Down to old Mohee and words of a similar strain have been found in the notes of George Piper, a whalerman in the northern seas between 1866-72. Similar lyrics were collected in 1924 by Joanna Colcord (an American seafarer and social worker, who collected songs from the hard-time sailors who passed through her workplace) and reproduced in Gale Huntington’s book,” Songs the Whalermen sang” (1964)

In all its forms, it is a song about a whaling expedition to the “cold Kamchatka sea”  in the 1850’s  when there were great numbers of Kamchatka Bowhead whales, Right Whales and Pacific Sperm Whales present in the Northern and Southern Oceans.

Commercial open boat whaling by American and European ships occurred in the Arctic in the Sea of Okhotsk from the 1830s to the early 1900s. In this time the populations of the  hunted whales declined drastically, with some thought to be extinct by western historians. Peak catches were made in the 1840s and 1850s. It's estimated that as many as 15,200 Bowheads and 2,400 Right Whales were taken in the sea. (Called Right Whales because they were the “right” ones to catch, Sperm whales were prized for the reservoir of waxy “spermicetti” oil found in their foreheads and used for lubrication and illumination)

Stan Hugill says that as early as 1820 Maui, one of the Hawaiian Islands (then called the Sandwich Islands), was considered “home” by the Yankee sailors who hunted the northern grounds where they fished the grounds off Kamchatka, the Gulf on Anadyr or the Bering Straits for the Right and Bowhead whales. 100 whaling ships were documented as visiting the islands in 1824, by 1846, the number had risen to 736.

By 1850 -60 , the Pacific whalers were meeting in Maui, or in nearby Oahu,( The Diamond Head of Wahu of the song) twice a year. Many 19th century whalermen used the port of Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui as a place to refit and trans ship oil home after six months or so in the Bering Sea or the Arctic Ocean

The whaler man’s year began in March they fitted out their ships on Maui for the summer season in the Arctic, The Whaling ships would then sail north hoping to arrive as the ice started to break and then stay, until the ice threatened again in late October. (There are many songs and tales of ships stranded by Captains wanting “one more whale, before the ice”. Eg Frozen in Frobisher Bay”)

Whaling ships usually entered the Sea of Okhotsk in May and left in October, though they could enter it as early as March and leave as late as November. Most ships entered and exited the sea via the Fourth Kuril Strait some used Bussol Strait. Those cruising in the Sea of Japan first usually entered the sea via La Pérouse Strait. As the ships entered Arctic waters, a stove was put in the forecastle and tryworks were constructed on deck to process the oil.  A crow's nest was set up for whale spotting and finding ways through the breaking ice pack.

Soon after entering the Arctic seas, ships reached the main body of pack ice around 57° N and 150° E, and here they typically encountered the first Bowheads. They then worked through the ice either to the northeast , north or west . The Spring weather was usually foul, with fogs, ice sheets and freezing conditions making whaling one of the most hazardous occupations then known.

After spending a few weeks cruising, ships looked for shoreleads ( ice free channels, leading inshore)  to the bays of the Arctic coasts, which they typically reached in July; in light ice years they could reach these areas by June.

Whilst there was still an ice danger to themselves, the whaling ships would lower the whale-boats, rowed by crew members with a harpoonman in the bow. These boats were sent ahead on extended cruises to make their way through or in some cases over the ice to the heads of bays, where they could catch several Bowheads, have them flensed on the beach, and their blubber tied in rafts by the time the ships reached them.

 When the ice had fully left the bays, the whaling ships were able to move closer to the shore.  The whale boats rowed from the ship or were sent out on cruises lasting several days. Some whaling ships spent the majority of the season in a single bay; but most went from bay to bay. 

Once spotted and chased, the whales were harpooned, killed and brought to the side of the whaling ship where the blubber was flensed (cut and separated from the carcass in long strips).

The blubber was then cut into book-sized chunks (whaler’s bible leaves) to be rendered down by heating in the vats of the tryworks. These were furnaces, typically constructed of brick and attached to the deck with iron braces. A reservoir of water sat under the furnace bricks to keep the decks from scorching. Cast-iron trypots  were set on top of the furnace and contained the blubber as it was being heated to recover the oil. (A similar process to the heating of fatty pork to produce lard.)  Tryworks were traditionally located aft of the fore-mast, and were the most distinguishing feature of a whaling ship.

In some areas the carcasses were towed ashore where the process took place on land. Rendering the flensed blubber “books” produced the highly valued whale oil, which was then stored in barrels to be eventually placed securely below decks. The oil-free “books” were then fed to the flames to create heat to reduce further blubber. The smell must have been horrendous.

The barrels had been made often in the home ports by coopers, who marked the staves and then disassembled the barrels and flat-packed them for space saving transport. Each whaling ship carried a sailors skilled in barrel assembly (or indeed their own cooper) who would assemble the barrels as they were needed.

 Once all the barrels were full, sealed and stored below decks, the ship, full of oil and bone, would secured the  hatches, whaleboats would be  brought aboard and the tryworks  thrown overboard ready for  the ships to head south, “ rolling down to Old Maui” to offload and provision. Some ships would stay for “ six hellish months” luckier ones would make two or three trips  to Maui in any season. Captains often refused to leave until every barrel was full to maximise their profit.

By November, most ships had returned to Maui, this time to fit out for sperm-whaling in the tropical and subtropical waters of the Southern Seas. Hence this song, bidding farewell to the bitter North, and looking forward with a smile to the warmth of the South and fresh food. (How soft the breeze, from the Southern Seas, now the ice is far astern)

Whaling ships might stay in the Pacific Whaling grounds, north and South for up to three years, and temporary homes were established on the Hawaiian Islands for sailors between trips when the whalermen could exploit the delights of the “kanaka” maids ( A Hawaiian term usually to mean men, but also persons, wahine being a more female specific term) during refits.

The whalers brought massive change to the islands. Initially the local population had no immunity to European diseases. A Cold virus wiped out 80% of the population in 1819 and STD’s spread quickly through the port populations. The sailors reluctance to eat fish led to an expansion in the farming adding new foods like cabbage, corn, limes, pineapples, potatoes, coffee, and pumpkins to the native Hawaiian diet and an increase in cattle farming to provide dried meat for the whaling expeditions with a reduction in forest land to create grass feeding fields.  Traders moved in and imported new goods like cocoa, flour, soap, rice, cotton cloth, glass, crockery, iron pots and pans to Hawaii. Sailors pay went on drink and delights but the big money went with the barrels to the USA, UK and Russia.

Finally, the decimation of the whale population led to a steady decline in the industry, such that by the commencement of the First World War, there were few, if any whaling ships trading around Maui and the Northern seas. The search for the whale had led the ships into the breeding grounds and the subsequent killing of the mothers and calves with no opportunity to recover, in 1910 only 12 whales were spotted in the whole season in Kamchatka and 8 of these were killed!

 © The Wellington Wailers


Huntington G: Songs The Whalemen sang 1964

www.mudcat café blog and history  Whaling in the North Pacific

Stan Hugill: Shanties and Sailor Songs (1969)

A.L. Lloyd   Leviathan: Ballads and songs of the Whale Trade (1967) LP  Arctic Whaling

Shanties and their stories

IMG_0420 (002).jpg


Shanties and their stories


Page in dry dock - please check back again later~~~