In Connecticut, The Charles W. Morgan Sails Again

Jun 13, 2014

The only wooden whaling ship in the world, the Charles W. Morgan, has just emerged from a painstaking five-year restoration, and is about to depart on its 38th voyage into the waters of the Atlantic.

But instead of hunting whales, today, the Morgan is all about saving them.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, WNPR’S J Holt has the story.


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The only wooden whaling ship in the world, the Charles W. Morgan, has just emerged from a painstaking five-year restoration and is about to depart for its 38th voyage on the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. But instead of hunting whales, today the Morgan's mission is to save them. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, WNPR's J Holt has our story.

J HOLT, BYLINE: On the east bank of the Mystic River, a few miles and two drawbridges in from Connecticut's coast line, is the Mystic Seaport Maritime Museum. The many old vessels tied to its warfs and the village of old houses and shops ashore making it easy for visitors to imagine they might have stepped back in time over a hundred years. Over the last several decades, millions of them have heard shouting like...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible).

HOLT: ...Come from the deck of the Charles W. Morgan, the world's last surviving wooden whaling ship and the oldest commercial vessel afloat in the United States. As the seaports flagship, she sat there as a display piece for over 70 years, and a staff of interpreters and demonstrators served to give museum-goers a sense of what it might have been like to work on an old whaler.

SEAN BERCAW: You know, when we're interpreting the vessel, we'd be interpreting, you know, the sailors of old would do this. They would do that.

HOLT: Sean Bercaw first worked at the museum in 1984.

BERCAW: Well, they did it this way but we don't know why. They'll have entries like, hove two in the usual fashion, which, to them, was totally explanatory. But to us, we're like, OK, and what is that? What is the usual fashion?

HOLT: The seaport is finally learning the answer to that question and others like it. After a career spent running tall ships, Bercaw has just returned to the Morgan as her second mate, and this isn't a demonstration.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Stand by to set out our top sails.

BERCAW: Stand by to set out our top sails high.

HOLT: With these commands, the Morgan is actually being sailed during her first sea trials since the 1920s. She's just completed a five-year restoration in the seaport's shipyard, and in preparation for her 38th voyage, which begins this weekend, her new crew is shaking down the vessel in New London where they've spent the last few weeks commissioning her with the build crew. To many involved, it feels like the old ship is coming alive.

KIP FILES: I mean, she's built with things that were alive.

HOLT: That's Captain Kip Files who signed on last fall as the Morgan's 22nd captain.

FILES: You know, she's a wooden vessel, and the feel of a wooden vessel and an iron or steel or fiberglass vessel - this is a little bit different in the seaway. They talk to you differently. And so the opportunity to take her and actually move her around and sail her and hear those commands again and the creaking of the decks when she's going through a seaway and stuff - that brings her back to life. And so it's just another link in the chain of her history.

HOLT: It's quite a chain. This crew will join the ranks of the Morgan's 1200 previous sailors started previous sailor on the last example of more than 2700 American whalers which collectively logged almost 15,000 voyages over 200 years.

FILES: It's the most historic sailing event of historic vessels in my lifetime. I don't know how you're going to top it. 1841 - think of it - 1841 when this vessel was built and then went out to do commercial work. California was a part of Mexico. (Laughing) Right, that far back.

HOLT: In addition to 15 professional sailors, the Morgan will count a revolving cast of volunteers and 30 seaport employees among her crew for the voyage. For Sarah Spencer who's worked at the seaport for 24 years and will join the crew later in the journey, it brings a lot of emotions.

SARAH SPENCER: It's a mingling. It's a little nerve-racking. I mean, she's the last of her kind in the world so you just hope everything goes just as it should, but it's wildly exciting. I've climbed on the ship, I've felt the rig in my hands and under my feet and hung out on the yards, but to actually do it while she's underway is mind-boggling.

HOLT: More than at the heart of its workers, the Morgan is in many ways the heart of the seaport. Already the last of her kind when she came up the river in 1941, she passed nearly empty riverbanks which had been home to a thriving ship building industry in the century before. Her new home had only two buildings on the premises, and just a couple small vessels in the fleet. According to ships historian Matthew Stackpole...

MATTHEW STACKPOLE: To have the Morgan be the center of attention and have all of the energy and talent connected with it has been invigorating to the museum, I think, in a really, really positive way.

HOLT: And now the Morgan will sail off on a voyage to some of New England's most important old whaling ports, bringing with her a story of America's connection to the sea. The ship will be open for tours. Her whaleboats will be put into action, and she'll be accompanied by a dockside exhibition including a 46-foot inflatable sperm whale.

BERCAW: To take the ship to sea again - to take her on her 38th voyage is a way to bring attention to all the history that she carries with her. That's her cargo today. It's history in all of its multifaceted, complicated layers. Some of them are inspiring and exciting. Some of them are terrible that we need to remember so that we don't repeat. But it's the whole package. And because she's the real thing, she can help us remember that.

HOLT: The first stop on the latest voyage of the Charles W. Morgan will be Newport, Rhode Island followed by Martha's Vineyard, which six of her captains called home, and then New Bedford, Massachusetts, where she was built 173 years ago. Later in the voyage, she'll pay visit the Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary in search of whales, this time to support their protection. For HERE AND NOW, I'm J Holt.

CHAKRABARTI: And we bid the Morgan fair winds and following seas. HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti.


I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.