Whaleboats were graceful, beautifully finished, high performance open rowboats. Being double-ended they were designed so that the moment that a whale was harpooned or lanced the rowers (or pulling hands) could back stroke away from it.
These wooden craft were the most expensive single item of equipment to be found at a shore station or “fishery”. They were maintained in good condition and kept in readiness during the whaling season. Whether owned by whalers or Māori these boats were prized possessions.
Although lightly constructed they were seaworthy craft with very pronounced sheer. Typically whaleboats were between 27 to 31 feet long (8.2 to 9.4 metres) with a beam (or width) around one fifth of its length. An average boat was about 26 inches deep amidships and rose to 36 to 40 inches at both ends, the stem (the bow end) being slightly higher.
During the New Zealand shore whaling era a whaleboat would have typically been of clinker (or lapstrake) construction (a boat building technique whereby the hull planks overlap) and commonly 27 to 28 foot long with a beam of five and a half to six and a half foot. By this stage America had begun to dominate the whaling industry and their whaleboats were considered to be superior craft. There were minor differences in construction between whaleboats used by the different nationalities.
The standard whaleboat of the period was gaily painted (similar to the last Azorean whaleboats), had individual markings so that it was readily identifiable and carried six whalers. The crew comprised the headsman, boatsteerer (also manned an oar to one side of the boat) and four pulling hands. Three oars were located on the starboard (right hand of the whaleboat when looking forward from the stern) side of the boat and two were found on the port (left hand) side. There was one oarsman to each thwart (a transverse structural cross member or timber in a boat that also served as the oarsman's seat). The headsman steered the whaleboat with a long steering (or sweep) oar located at the stern.
Whaleboats were not only used for hunting whales they were also used by the shore whalers as their primary means of coastal transportation. During these localised voyages they were usually sailed.