May 14, 2014
Whaling Ship Charles W. Morgan Sailing From Mystic on Historic Voyage
And then there was one.
America’s once mighty whaling fleet used to number more than 2,700 vessels; today only the Charles W. Morgan remains. On Saturday, May 17, the whaling ship (above and below), which was built and launched in 1841 and is owned by Mystic Seaport, will embark on a voyage for the first time in nearly 100 years. The ship is the only remaining wooden whaling ship and the oldest commercial vessel now afloat (only the USS Constitution, a Navy ship, is older). Taking the Morgan out to sea is a one-of-a-kind event, say maritime history experts.
“It's unprecedented,” says Morgan historian Matthew Stackpole. “I don’t think any other museum has ever done anything like this.”
He adds that on its voyage the Morgan will be educating people about America’s maritime history and “making history at the same time.”
Spectators can watch the beginning of the voyage on Saturday at a farewell ceremony at Mystic Seaport shipyard at 8:45 a.m. The Morgan will depart at 9:15 a.m. It will be towed down the Mystic River en route to New London, where a month-long fitting out period will take place. Once preparations are complete, the vessel will work her way up the coast of New England on her 38th voyage, stopping in several ports along the way. On select days, the ship will be open for boarding and a dockside exhibition that includes historic interpretation, live demonstrations, music, and more.
This will be a onetime-only voyage for the Morgan, which will return to its home at Mystic Seaport in August. During the voyage precautions are being taken to ensure the safety of the crew and the ship itself; minimal modern navigation and communication systems have been temporarily installed, and the ship will be accompanied by a tug boat at all times, should anything go wrong. Even with these precautions the voyage will not be without risk and the crew will be entering proverbial uncharted waters, as there is no one alive who knows how the Morgan actually sails.
“The complicated part is no one's sailed her since the 1920s and so a lot of that knowledge is lost,” said captain Kip Files (right), a traditional sailing expert from Rockland, Maine, who will be commanding this voyage. "Whaleships have a unique configuration. They were not designed for speed, but for durability and volume. I've sailed this type of vessel but every vessel is unique. There's no one to tell me, ‘Oh you don't do it that way, we do it this way to make it easier,’ so we're going to have to go step by step."
Though this voyage will be challenging, it will be far from the first time the 110-foot-tall ship capable of carrying 13,000 square feet of sail, has braved dangerous waters.
“A LUCKY SHIP”
“The natives now commenced to shout in an infernal manner, rising up in their canoes, tossing up their paddles in the air, catching them by the handles when they came down and swinging them around like war clubs. No mistaking, the motions meant they would soon be beating out our brains.”
So writes Nelson Cole Haley in Whale Hunt, the memoir of his four-year voyage on the Morgan from 1849 to 1853. During this incident described above the Morgan was sailing in the Pacific Ocean near the Kingsmill chain of islands. The ship got stuck when the winds went calm and it began to drift toward a coral reef near an island known to be inhabited by hostile natives. The people of this island were long believed to be cannibals, which was not actually the case, and while the natives did not intend to eat the crew of the Morgan they did intend them harm.
“It was a place that whalemen knew was dangerous because they had attacked other whaleships and killed the crew and burned the ship,” explains Stackpole, the Morgan historian. “The ship itself was surrounded by many canoes and natives attacking it as it drifts towards the reef. The crew is able to fight them off using whaling implements and they had a couple of small guns aboard. But they still continue drifting towards the reef and just as they’re within a boat length, which is about a hundred feet, there’s a countercurrent that catches the ship and turns it 180 degrees away from where it was going, and they drift by the edges of the reef, according to Haley, missing it by 15 to 20 feet.”
Stackpole adds, “It’s one of incidents that is part of the Morgan's reputation of having been a lucky ship.”
The Morgan was launched on July 21, 1841, from the yard of Jethro and Zachariah Hillman in New Bedford, Mass. Over an 80-year whaling career, the ship embarked on 37 voyages between 1841 and 1921, most lasting three years or more. She roamed every corner of the globe in her pursuit of whales. In addition to surviving the normal perils of the whaling industry, the ship successfully navigated crushing Arctic ice, countless storms, Cape Horn roundings and, after she finished her whaling career, even the Hurricane of 1938.
The ship was retired from whaling in 1921, and after a brief movie career as a set in the films "Down to the Sea in Ships" (starring a young Clara Bow), and "Java Head" she was bought by a wealthy investor who put her on display at his waterfront estate near New Bedford. After his death, she eventually made her way to Mystic Seaport (then the Maritime Historical Association) in 1941. She has since dominated the waterfront at the Seaport.
In 2008 the Morgan was pulled out of the water to undergo restoration in the museum’s shipyard and was launched back into the water last summer. The expensive, multimillion-dollar restoration, inspired the Morgan’s 38th voyage.
“We felt we could do something big,” says Dan McFadden, Mystic Seaport’s director of communications. “No one’s taken anything this old back to sea, so it’s pretty remarkable.”
The 38th Voyage
Walking on the deck of the Morgan today one gets a lofty and open feel; you can see the water on both sides and the imaginative may think of pirate adventures and wondrous days and nights at sea. But below deck is different. The ceiling is low, and average height individuals have to crouch in order to get around. There are no hammocks, instead the crew would sleep in incredibly cramped bookshelf-like bunks. Most films about ocean-going life don’t capture the claustrophobia of a whaleship's interior. It's hard to imagine living in those conditions for as long as five years with a full crew of about 35 men. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how the modern crew of 25 is going to fare on this voyage.
"The quarters are definitely intimate," Captain Files admits when asked about the tight living conditions he and his crew will face. But he shrugs it off. "They are nothing new to those of us who sail on traditional vessels. We are used to those kind of living conditions; it comes with the job."
Files says the biggest challenge has been getting the ship to meet U.S. Coast Guard regulations.
“Obviously, a vessel built in 1841 is not going to automatically meet 2014 regulations, and her status as an historic artifact meant we wanted to alter the ship as little as possible. The Coast Guard was very supportive of what we are doing, so it was a matter of carefully working through the details with them to get the ship to where she needed to be.”
(Right: on board the Morgan, Erik Ofgang interviews Dan McFadden, Mystic Seaport's director of communications.)
But it’s been well worth the challenge, says Files and others involved. Instead of whales, this voyage is in search of the past and those involved hope it will serve as a portal into an astounding but often horrifying piece of American history.
A Mixed Legacy
Native Americans hunted whales from shore for thousands of years. In the 1600s they taught the colonists their techniques. Soon, colonists began hunting whales in small boats that couldn't sail far from shore. Eventually they realized they could launch these small boats off of bigger seafaring vessels.
By the 1800s whale oil for lamps had became a major industry. New Bedford, Mass., where the Morgan was built and launched, was the leading whale port, but Connecticut had a strong connection to the industry. New London was a large whaling port, and in terms of number of whaling voyages launched, it trailed only San Francisco, and the Massachusetts ports of Provincetown, Nantucket, and New Bedford.
The technique for killing whales had become ruthlessly effective but, by today’s standards, still shockingly dangerous for whalemen. Large whaleships like the Morgan would travel with five or six small whaleboats on deck. When a whale was sighted these boats would be lowered into the water with six men on board. The boats would give chase to the whale, when the crew got close the harpooner would spear it with a harpoon that had a line attached to it.
"The initial attack was simply to get connected to the whale,” Stackpole explains. Then the crew of the small whaleboat would be dragged by the whale, which would often try to escape by diving. “They would be able to let out line if the whale sounded or dove [most whaleboats were equipped with about 2,000 feet of line]. If they ran out of line, they had to cut the line, because the whaleboat would be pulled under water by the whale."
Other times whales would try to escape by rushing away at great speeds.
“That was called the Nantucket sleigh ride,” Stackpole says. The process could take several hours and sometimes whaleboats would be dragged over the horizon by a whale and it would take a day or so before they reconnected with the main vessel. In the end, the whalemen would often emerge from the mighty struggle victorious.
“Whales have to come up to the surface to breathe,” Stackpole says. "Eventually the whales would get tired and need air, the whaleman knew this, so they would wait. They could tell when it was coming up because the line would go slack, then they would pull the line in and wait for the whale to come up and hope it didn’t come up right underneath them. Then they would come close to it, literally touching it, and use a long sharp lance which was designed to allow them to get to either a lung or a major artery.”
This brutal practice took its toll on the whale population, which ultimately was hunted to near extinction. The hope is that the Morgan's voyage will help bring whaling history to life again.
“It’s a human story, it’s a human endeavor. It has parts that are laudable and parts that are bad that we need to remember so that we don’t do them again,” says Stackpole. He adds that it will also be a voyage of historic discovery. “There are no color photographs or films of a whaleship under sail. Nobody’s recorded what a whaleship sounds like as you’re making sail.”