The Last Living Whaleship

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Mystic Seaport pulls off a triumph with the 38th Voyage of the Charles W. Morgan

Tuesday, July 12, 1841

Since her arrival at Mystic Seaport in 1941, 20 million people have walked the Morgan's decks.

Begins with fresh breezes from the E. by S. Breaking out the fore hole, after rotten water cask. Middle stowed of the fore hole. Last part quiet moderate, so ends. Heading NE by E. Lat 80:22N, Long 118:26

So there I was, July 12, 2014, standing on the deck of the last wooden whaleship of the great American 19th century fleet, gazing up at nearly 13,000 square feet of creamy canvas hanging lushly against a cloudless sky. The crew hustled around me, responding to the chief mates’ relay of Capt. Kip Files’ calmly issued commands. They hauled and hoisted, eased and belayed, and the Charles W. Morgan was once again sailing.

The nearly three-month journey of the 113-foot ship (with a 27-foot, 6-inch beam) began May 17. Ports of call were New London, Connecticut; Newport, Rhode Island; and Vineyard Haven and New Bedford, Massachusetts, with several days of sailing through the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off Provincetown, Massachusetts, and stops in Boston and at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy as part of the centennial celebration of the opening of the Cape Cod Canal. It’s safe to say that this almost three-month odyssey required more preparation and was better planned than any previous voyage the Morgan had made in her 173-year history, including her 12th trip, which began July 13, 1881, and ended June 17, 1886, after nearly five years of chasing whales through the Pacific.

Mystic Seaport spent $10 million and more than five years readying the Morgan for this comeback, and, oh, what a comeback it has been. In 2010, I had lunch with the Seaport’s Steve White. He was two years into his job as president of the museum. The shock of the Great Recession had worn off, but the long-term effects were just becoming evident. Cultural institutions of every kind were struggling. White talked about the need to make people pay attention to our vanishing nautical traditions and history.

While other organizations curled into the fetal position, Mystic Seaport had just announced a bold plan to bring a beloved but sedentary dockside exhibit back to life. It was a brilliant gamble that seemed to have every likelihood of failing.

The Henry B. DuPont Preservation Shipyard at Mystic Seaport did a five-year restoration of the Morgan that employed dozens of shipwrights.

Now, four years later, as we stood on the deck of the Morgan, sailing along the Stellwagen Bank on a bright summer day during the Charles W. Morgan’s “38th Voyage,” I asked White whether he can believe they pulled it off. What Mystic did, White says with a smile, was give donors a way to be excited despite the busted economy. The goal of relaunching the Morgan was big and sexy.

It’s true: Nobody enjoys writing the check that keeps the lights on and the grass mowed, but the promise of full sails on a 19th century whaleship? That was a crazy dream people could get behind. “Restoring the Morgan was the right thing to do, and so everybody has wanted to make it happen because it’s right,” White says.

“I hope that this,” White added, gesturing around the busy deck, “will get people to pay attention — at least the maritime-inclined. Kids have got to fall in love with the Morgan. We’re getting farther and farther from our maritime heritage. We have to reawaken that spirit — well, we have surely done that with our staff,” he adds with a grin as we watch Mystic Seaport executive vice president Susan Funk put her back into hauling a sail.

A petite blonde I last saw sitting behind a desk and dressed in a suit, Funk is described in her biography as being responsible for operational and strategic planning, program evaluation, participation in trustee committees and the management of all museum functions associated with the Mystic Seaport visitor experience. No wonder she looks as happy as a kid on a trampoline today. All that work, for all those years, has delivered the magical opportunity to experience what she has spent her career safeguarding.

Of course, the restoration of the Morgan has been about more than saving a piece of history. The $10 million invested in the project went back into the economy in 10 million ways. It provided full-time jobs to dozens of people who have honed shipbuilding knowledge and very particular carpentry skills that would otherwise die out. Riggers were trained. Sails were made by Nat Wilson, in Maine, from Scottish woven cloth. In every port the ship visited, thousands of visitors flocked to see her and to spend their money celebrating her return.

In an increasingly complex world that gives us no place to hide from daily updates on terrorism, global warming, political deadlock, Ebola and random acts of sensational inhumanity, the return of the Morgan has given us beauty and succor.

About a week after crossing the line the welcome cry from masthead came rolling down the belly of the main topsail of “There! She blows!! There!! She blows!!!”

“When away?” says the captain.

“Three points, on the lee bow.”

“How far off?”

“Three miles. There — s-h-e — b-l-o-w-s”

“Sperm whales?”

“Yes, sir. A large school. There — she — blows”

“Call all hands.”

“Haul aboard the main yards. Get the lines in the boats,” were the orders given quick and loud by the captain.

There was but little need to give the order to call all hands, as all who had the watch below, hearing the welcome sound of “There she blows,” had sprung up from their berths, hurried their clothes on and scrambled up on deck in time to help haul aback the mainyard.

— from the journal of Nelson Cole Haley,

written aboard the Charles W. Morgan, 1849

I had never seen a whale, and now I stood on the decks of the Morgan and counted seven — seven! — that I could see with one sweep of the horizon. As someone facetiously pointed out, the sea was lousy with them. Humpbacks and fins frolicked with a grace that I wouldn’t have expected for mammals that weigh between 35 and 75 tons.

Here was a modern change to rejoice in. The Morgan’s tryworks were idle this day, and when the whaleboat was lowered to chase these majestic creatures, it was in homage.

Whaleboats, built by apprentices and maritime institutions around the country, were lowered in friendly chase of fins and humpbacks.

By the end of the American whaling era, more than 50,000 whales were being killed annually. In 1986, the International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling so that stocks might recover, although Japan and several other nations still hunt them. There are cultures as diverse as Bequia’s in the Caribbean and that of the Faroe Islands, midway between Norway and Iceland, that still hang on to the tradition of annual whale killings. The North Pacific right whale and the North Atlantic right whale, both severely depleted by pre-20th century whaling, are in danger of extinction, and seven of the 13 great whale species are still considered endangered.

Yet we would not be where we are as a nation without the whaling era. The harvest of cetacean oil lit homes, lubed equipment, built factories and fleets, and fueled our young nation to new economic heights that made America a world power.

Now, as we watched a crew climb into a whaleboat, the sense of exhilaration aboard was palpable. There was something in this ritual — lowering the boat to row out among the whales, awed by their beauty, thrilled by their presence, shamed by our reckless past — that felt like an act of both contrition and celebration. Would it be too corny to say it felt like a reconciliation?

Tuesday, July 12, 1898

Begin with Fresh breeze from S.W. Bk steering N.W. on Port tack under all sail clear up due the day one store down oil in after hatch & set up few casks for fresh water at the afternoon set up thick fog until night so wind N.E. Bk heading West on Starboard tacks so end

Lat 39.32 N / Long 145.37 E

A few weeks after my experience aboard, I watched video of the Morgan coming back up the Mystic River to her berth at Chubb Wharf at Mystic Seaport. Crowds cheered, bands played, dozens of spectator boats witnessed her return — it was triumphant by any measure. But I felt a deep sense of sadness.

I admit I have a strong attachment to the Morgan. I have visited the ship on several occasions. The first time, I walked her decks, reverently touched her wheel, closed my eyes to imagine the cramped and fetid reality of life in the fo’c’sle. The second time, I stood in her hold midway through the restoration to see the ceiling planks installed and imagined the flow of the Pacific passing by, the life aboard and the life in the sea with which the mighty ship has mingled. I am practically a Morgan groupie (and I know I’m not alone!) but — still — I was surprised to find my eyes welling as I watched her returning to her berth.

It was not a case of all good things must come to an end, because I know the Morgan, in the hands of the able staff at Mystic, will go on to thrill and inspire countless generations, as she has for decades now, at Chubb Wharf. Perhaps it was the melancholy of cleaning up after a long-awaited party. Or the pang of seeing an old racehorse put out to pasture.

There was one thing I hated about media coverage of the Morgan’s trip this summer: Every account of the 38th voyage that I saw referred to it as her last.

Don’t you believe it.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Began with winds SSW at 7 knots. Tug assisted past Race Point, then sails unfurled above Stellwagen Banks. Many whales. A day I will never forget, so ends.

See related articles:

- The Charles W. Morgan returns to New Bedford

- Unsung Heroes

October 2014 issue