History of the Whitehall Rowboat Part II

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Captain Smith, born in Boston in 1869, tells us in a 1943 ‘Rudder’ magazine article, the story of a deep water boarding house owner and ships pilot named Captain Alfred Sorenson. “This man usually got what he went after, whether he was in quest of sailors for his boarding-house or to pluck a fellow being from a watery grave. He outran the fleet of Whitehalls once. He reached a point off the tip of Cape Cod. Came a howling winter gale! Was Alfred fazed? He was not. Furling his sail tightly he bent (tied) on his warp, (bowline). With this, used as a sea anchor off the bow, he lay head to it, (bow facing into the wind and waves). After thirty-six hours of exposure, he spotted a ship, got himself aboard and came home.”

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According to Captain Smith it was because these boats rowed so easily in calms and sailed so well in a breeze that they were even used by the New York Police for harbor patrols.

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Colorful stories are associated with “runners” who, under oar and sail, ventured out to meet sailing ships as they approached harbor. A salesman’s lot was adventurous in those days as this chap was a highly competitive representative of one of several “deep water boarding houses” actively engaged in lining up new clients with a place to stay while in port. Closing with the approaching sailing ship they would swing about and, rowing furiously, approach the larger ship’s bow. Using a long slender pole, a grapple hook and line would be slipped onto the forward lee bobstay chain. The line paid out to a safe distance, and the then the Whitehall warped alongside where one of the runner’s crew would slip nimbly aboard. A half pint of whiskey slipped into the right hands assured him of a welcome time aboard and an ear or two to ply.

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The Whitehall rowing boat was the recognized champion of speed on the water so it was only natural that unofficial competition led to organized racing. Many stories are told of the intense intercity competition between Boston and New York and the substantial sums that were wagered on these challenges. Rowing became the principal American competitive sport on the Eastern seaboard from the middle to the end of the nineteenth century. It was the influence of the Whitehall rowboat as much as anything else that made this happen.

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With the arrival of the steam engine and the gasoline engine, rowing with oars and human power quite quickly fell out of favor. Thousands of Whitehall rowboats that were in use for over 100 years went the way of the horse and buggy, out of existence for commercial use.

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Made of wood almost all of these boats succumbed to the ravages of time except for a few that were stored in ideal dry conditions such as a Mystic Seaport museum In Newport, RI. Others continued to be built by wooden boat builders both professional and amateur. The Wooden Boat Magazine helped to keep this design popular and offered plans as well as constructing them in the wooden boat building schools that were also established in the 1970s and later.

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About the Author:

Harold loves rowing, sailing, diving, paddling and anything water related. He co-founded Whitehall Rowing & Sail with Marie in 1987. Together they founded the Whitehall Spirit® product line which now includes the Oar Board®. Read more on Harold at HaroldAune.ca “I’ve designed and produced a lot of boats and equipment over the years. The Oar Board has been the most gratifying project so far.”

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