May 14, 2014
Whaling Ship Charles W. Morgan Sailing From Mystic on Historic Voyage
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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.