Pico—one of nine Portuguese Azorean islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean that is dominated by a cone volcano—is about three times the size of the U.S. island of Nantucket, or 10% larger than the U.K. Isle of Wight.
American whale boats regularly visited this archipelago in the late 1700’s, including Pico island, and influenced the eventual creation of the islands’ industry of harpooning cetaceans. In 1952 alone, approximately 725 whales were killed in the Azores—predominantly sperm whales, which were the only species targeted. Each whale could supply up to 3,000 gallons [11,000 liters] of oil, converted from fat at a coastal factory in Pico that opened in 1935.
In 1984, this hunting was declared illegal in the Azores as part of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.
Whale Boat Racing
Azorean whaling no longer exists. Yet traditional hunting boats are now active in a dynamic universe of racing.
‘Without these regattas, all these whale boats would be gone. But they are a healthy story of change and adaptation,’ Felipe Fernandes explained.
Fernandes, born in the town of Lajes do Pico, is an avid and successful whale boat racer who promotes the sport as a badge of identity for the Azores. Trained as an economist and employed by the city hall treasury department, he spends his free hours training in a whale boat every day from May through September, and races during weekends in summer.
‘I think whale boats should be a symbol that visitors associate with this location. The DNA of these boats was always competition and performance, which can now be converted into racing.’
In July of 1988, the first whale boat regatta was organized in the Azores, based on informal races that took place earlier.
Pico residents led the way in promoting these races. Today the island has 23 recovered working boats, while the neighboring island of Faial has eight and Terceira island has three. No other Azorean isle has more than two working whale boats.
Some eight whale boat regattas now take place annually off the shores of Pico and Faial. These include inter- and intra-island events broken into categories: male rowing, female rowing, mixed sailing and ‘mastery,’ where crews both row and sail—as whaling crews once did. At ‘Whalers Week’ (Semana dos Baleeiros) in late August this year on Pico, some 400 persons participated.
The regional directorate of cultural affairs (Direçao Regional dos Assuntos Culturais) of the Azorean Government paid for the reconstruction of these 38- to 39-foot (12-meter) long whale boats used for racing. They also provide annual funds for boat conservation.
‘These boats are heritage; they are public property, and are assigned to clubs,’ Fernandes explained.
Because the Azores maintains a close relationship with the U.S. city of New Bedford in Massachusetts (also once a whaling port), every two years one of the locations holds an international Azorean Whaleboat Regatta—the venue being alternated between the U.S. and Portugal.
Boats are kept and maintained within various clubs. At Clube Náutico Aliança Calhetense on the southeast coast of Pico we met young rower named Carlos Ferreira, so dedicated to the sport that his forearm includes a tattoo with the registration number of the boat he crews.
In 2012 Fernandes became captain of the boat Maria Armanda. Originally built in 1943 and reconstructed in the year 2000, this was the boat that hunted the final whale harpooned off Azorean waters.
‘My second year as captain I started with new, younger guys with no experience. They were not competitive, which was useless,’ Fernandes said. ‘But they kept asking questions, which was good. Those are the right people. At first people stopped me on the street on Saturdays and laughed at my new crew.
‘Then, some magic happened.’
The crew’s subsequent success in whale boat racing was based on strategic effort.
‘There is no literature on whale boats. I studied techniques,’ Fernandes recalled. ‘I began seeing patterns. There’s an old Oxford manual of fixed seat rowing which I read, and then photographed my rowers, trying to understand positions of hands, arms and shoulders. I studied and watched videos. I contacted Swiss Olympic rower Xeno Müller. I chased him, sent him pictures, videos. He gave me one piece of advice that changed what we did. I used GPS during training to measure and record our angles and software that tells me how much time I am losing per tack. Every time on a boat, I am looking for ways to improve.’
The effort paid off. Beginning with a race at São Roque on the north side of Pico island, Maria Armanda began winning.
Whale Boat Construction
At a boat club named Clube Náutico de Santa Cruz we met João Silveira Tavares, who has reconstructed more than 20 Azorean whale boats since 1997, and also built a boat in the U.S. at New Bedford. It takes four to five months to move from a model to a finished boat. Portions of the boat over which ropes—sheets—run are made of whale bone to strengthen them.
‘The only moving parts are the hinged mast and a rudder held in place by two pins,’ Fernandes explained. ‘No keel, no ballast. Keep it simple, easy to fix, inexpensive. They are very fast boats and eager to stay in a straight line. They have very efficient waterlines, and if there were no rudder you would not see white water.’
Pedro Silva, who promotes sporting events for the local government (and whose father was a whaler) explained how each boat requires 6,500 copper nails to be placed by hand by a team of two.
Looking inside the front of one boat, we saw small images of saints mounted above horizontal tubes that once held harpoons.
‘Whalers were quite religious,’ Fernandes remarked. ‘As they had a lot to lose.’
Felling a Mast
Hunting for wood to transform into a whale boat mast is itself a sport.
‘It must have the right diameter, and not taper too quickly,’ Fernandes said as he and his team drove into misty hills northwest of Lajes do Pico one morning.
Within the forest of Japanese cedar, Fernandes first considered tree diameter by using his hands as a measuring tool. He next peered upward to gauge both tree straightness as well as taper: at 28 feet [nine meters] from the base, the wood must be thick enough to support the eventual tension of a gaff.
After an hour and ten minutes of searching, Fernandes suddenly shared his excitement in Portuguese while pointing at a tree—‘magnifico, direto, perfeito, lindíssimo, maravilhoso!’ (magnificent, straight, perfect, beautiful, wonderful).
Next, the efficiency and speed of a whale boat race team kicked in. From the moment a chain saw touched bark until the timber was strapped to the top of a pickup truck for transport (including felling, debranching and hauling the tree out of the woods) a total of only eight minutes elapsed.
The evening after tree felling, Mayor Ana Brum of Lajes de Pico sat with a group of racers inside a restaurant at Lucas Amara winery on the southern coast of Pico. Her grandfather was a whaler, and she was a rower and avid athlete while growing up. After study and working on the mainland she returned to Pico to found her own accounting company before locals convinced her to run for mayor.
Brum highlighted island attractions—including not only whale watching but internationally reputable wines.
‘Pico made a good transformation from the whaling time, when we joined the European Community. In 1989 the first whale watching companies opened here. So, all is changing,’ she said.
‘If you want to see tall buildings and high-level construction, go to London. If you want to feel part of a community, come here. This is where we can be with our family. It is so quiet.’
Whaling as Heritage
‘South of Pico island is a superhighway for cetaceans,’ Fernandes explained. ‘You can see dozens of species, including humpback and sperm whales during summer.’
Sperm whales are attracted to the deep water that surrounds the volcanic Azores. During the whaling era, lookouts were posted at strategic elevated sites around the periphery of islands. If any spotted a whale, they alerted residents with a firework that included both boom and staccato sounds. Crews then ran to their boats and maneuvered toward their prey.
When the seven-person team pulled close to a whale, one of them thrust a harpoon attached to a rope into a mammal which could weigh as much as a fully loaded semi-truck. This was eventually followed by a second type of harpoon designed to kill.
Pico ex-whaler Manuel Medina, 94 years old, stood inside the whale boat house of Clube Náutico de Santa Cruz on Pico and watched his friends play dominoes. He recalled being 13 years old when recruited by his skipper grandfather to crew a boat. As the youngest and lightest on board, he was sometimes sent climbing the mast to fix a problem.
‘We were only paid when whale oil was sold, sometimes once a year,’ Medina said. ‘We usually killed and caught 12 whales a month But my friend, a harpooner, killed 55 whales one summer.
‘I didn’t like that boat. We were wet all day. Most dangerous was when the whale tail came up out of the water,’ he recalled. When he had the chance, Medina escaped the lifestyle by emigrating to Toronto, where he lived for 20 years.
On a sunny fall afternoon, Fernandes and the crew of Maria Armanda participated in a casual afternoon sailing race with four other whale boats.
‘These boats are interesting at rowing and interesting at sailing. But they are also the best for switching from rowing to sailing,’ he explained. ‘We had a crew of seven do it once in 56 seconds—from last rowing stroke to erecting a 50 square meter sail.’
Although summertime competition can be fierce, race organization is generally loose and affable. This became clear when one boat captain—a wizened Frenchman and now Pico resident named Loïc Hetier—realized he lacked a required seventh crew member. He ducked into a local harbor cafe/bar and in minutes had recruited a young Swiss woman vacationing from Bern.
Boats colored yellow, purple, pink and red clustered below cloud-capped Pico peak near a basalt cliff the color of night. Next—a megaphone countdown and klaxon blast, followed by a flag drop. Within seconds, sails furled out like blossoms—cream and white and blank except for single small icons on each: black star, blue feather, rectangle, dark line.
As these boats angled in a light wind the event appeared less regatta than pageant—homage to a visual communion of sky, ocean, volcanic peak and shoreline towns. Here over a warm cetacean rich ocean glowed camaraderie and gratitude for the emerging realization that dominance does not derive from destroying another species.
The klaxon sounded again at 17:07. The race was over and spirits ran high. Afterward came an impromptu awards ceremony held on a sloped ramp outside Clube Náutico das Lajes do Pico, where tokens were handed out before an apricot sun set into ocean waters.
‘People used to ask around in the streets ‘Who caught the whale?’ because they heard the firecracker and knew boats had gone out,’ Fernandes said. ‘Now, people are asking ‘Who won the race?’ So healthy dynamics are maintained.’
The legacy of whaling is also captured at an excellent museum on Pico—Museu dos Baleeiros. There, visitors can watch historical videos about the sport, or inspect detailed scrimshaw carvings or boat riggings. They can also ask questions of Director Manuel Francisco Costa Júnior (who may even regale museum visitors with his guitar and stories).
Businessman Andrew Pindar runs a company that transports yachts for international sail races, and he has worked with professional sailing events for more than 40 years. After participating in this regatta, he commented on having been involved with the ‘cutting edge of technology,’ and ‘radically pioneering designs of ocean race yachts.’ He spoke about his hours on Azorean waters. ‘Having been at the forefront of a technological arms race, finding its antithesis in Pico was a refreshing eye opener.’
Another visiting captain that day was Conrad Humphreys, renowned for having circumnavigated the earth three times under sail, including as a participant in the Vendée Globe race. Impressed by unique aspects of the sport and the inclusion of youth and vocational training related to whale boats, his summary was direct: ‘Everything about this project is gold.’
[An article about the changing wine scene of Pico is here.]