First-time sailors, who had hoped to earn a fortune at sea and return home to purchase a small farm, were sorely disappointed. One Martha’s Vineyard boy who went whaling with a neighbor and captain discovered "the wealth I had hoped for had failed to materialize. When I came ashore… they paid me just one dollar for eleven months’ work. One of my mates was in an ambulance bound for the hospital, and I gave him half of the money." Another young man recalled that he ended his voyage considerably "richer in experience, and darned little else, for I owed the ship thirty-five dollars." An inexperienced sailor averaged six dollars a month on whale ships and could earn two dollars more a month doing more predictable and less glamorous work on a merchant ship.
Captains and officers earned much more than other crew members and were more likely to sign on for a new voyage. In spite of unprofitable voyages, they averaged higher wages than their counterparts in the merchant marine. These men were able to support families and many built substantial homes that they enjoyed between stints at sea.
New Bedford Whaling Museum