May 14, 2014
07:26 AM
History

Whaling Ship Charles W. Morgan Sailing From Mystic on Historic Voyage

Whaling Ship Charles W. Morgan Sailing From Mystic on Historic Voyage

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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.”

Whaling Ship Charles W. Morgan Sailing From Mystic on Historic Voyage

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