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More about Flensing

Flensing is the removal of blubber from the whale. The process was described in detail by a young surgeon aboard the Dundee whaler Narwhal in 1874. He produced a journal of his voyage to Davis Straits in 1874. Excerpts from this are given below. [Journal of a voyage to Davis Straits. 1874. Thomas Thorton Macklin Dundee Museum Collection]

Flensing tool or blubber spade, used around 1870
The fish is always brought alongside with its tail forward abreast of the fore-chains; it is then secured by means of a tackle from the fore-rigging which is hooked to a strop, round the small part of the tail, and by a stout rope, called the rump rope. A similar purchase is hooked from the main rigging, to a strop rove through a hole cut in the extremity of the under jaw, which is called the nose tackle. The right fin of the fish, which is next the ships side, the whale being on its back, is dragged taut up and secured by a chain or rope to the upper deck, the bulwarks on the part side being unshipped. Between the foremast and main-mast is a stout wire rope, called the blubber guy having four large single blocks strapped to it, through which are rove the fore and main speck tackles. The former is worked by the capstan and the latter by the steam winch, near the main-mast. These tackles are used for hoisting on board the large layers of blubber, some between one and two tons in weight; as they are cut off. From the main-mast-head is a heavy purchase called the kent or cant tackle, which is used to turn the fish over as it flinches. It consists of a treble and a double block, having a seven inch fall. Two boats called mollie boats attend upon those cutting up the fish, and are kept alongside it by couple of hands in each boat, called mollie boys, these boats hold the spades and knives etc. The harpooners, under the guidance of the speksioneer, are on the whale, and with their blubber spades and knives separate the blubber from the carcass in long strips, which are hoisted in by the fore and main spek tackles. Previous to this, however, a strip of blubber from two to three feet in width, is cut from the neck, just abaft the inside fin, and this is called the cant. A large hole is then cut in this band of blubber, through which is passed the strap of the cant purchase, and skewered there by a wooden toggle or fid being passed through. By means of this purchase, brought to the windlass, the fish is turned over as required. Each harpooner has iron spikes called spurs, strapped onto his boots, to prevent him slipping off the fish. The belly is the first part of the whale operated on. After the blubber from this part has been completely taken off and the right fin removed, the fish is canted onto its side by means of the large tackle and the blubber from the opposite side similarly stripped. The whalebone is then detached, special bone gear being used for this purpose and the lips hoisted in, and so on till all that is valuable has been cut off and taken aboard. The tail is then separated from the carcass, or kreng, as it is called, which latter being released generally sinks, and three cheers are given. The duties of the boatsteerers during this operation are to cut up the strips of blubber, as they are received on deck, into pieces about two feet square, with long bladed and hafted knives. The pieces are seized by the line-managers, armed with pickies and transported below through a small hole in the main hatchway. Below they are received by the skeeman, and another man denominated a king, by whom they are stowed temporarily between decks, until such time as an opportunity may offer for the final operation of making off. The tail is cut up into blocks, for chopping up the blubber so as to preserve the edge of the cleavers.

The valuable whalebone is then cut from the jaw and carefully brought onto the deck to be prepared.

The whale bone on being received on deck, is split-up into portions, each containing from nine to sixteen blades, by means of large iron wedges, and these are again sub-divided into pieces of three or four blades, when what is called the gun which connects them together, is removed. There are from three to four hundred blades on each side of the head.

Making Off

The second flensing process was known as Making off. This was the preparation of the blubber pieces for the voyage home.

Flensing tools, held by Kirkcaldy Museum
The blubber is hoisted on deck again, it is then seized by two men on either side of the deck, who with their pickies, drag it to two men - generally harpooners stationed on each side, whose duty it is to cut it up into pieces about twelve or sixteen pounds weight, and who remove from it all kreng and other extraneous matter. These men are called krengers. The blubber is then thrown forward to the remaining harpooners, who are stationed on each side of the deck near a clash, which is an iron stanchion firmly fixed into a socket in the deck, standing about three feet high, and having five iron spikes on the top. Each skinner as they are called has an assistant, who is called a clasher who picks up the pieces of blubber having skin on it with a pair of clash hooks, and places it on the top of the clash. The skin is then separated from the blubber by the skinner armed with a long knife. The blubber is then deposited in a heap, called a bank, in front of the spek through, which latter is an oblong trough, about eighteen feet long and two feet in width and depth, which is placed over the hatchway through which the blubber is to be passed down. A hole about a foot square is cut in the centre of this trough, to which is fitted a long canvas shoot or hose, called a lull, the end of which is pointed into the tank receiving the blubber. The lid of the trough is turned back and is supported underneath by chocks, so as to form a table about three feet high, on which are placed the blocks cut from the whales tail. Behind the blocks are stationed the boat -armed with choppers, who province it is to chop up the pieces into small portions, after they have passed through the hands of the skinners. They are then thrown into the spek trough, passed down the lull and so into the tanks. The upper deck, indeed, presents a most animated and busy scene, during the time the work is at its height, of course, this tends to make the ship in a most filthy and greasy state, although there is nothing absolutely repugnant or disgusting in witnessing the process.

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