A Trip on the Whaling Ship Charles W. Morgan | History Under Sail
What’s it like to sail on the historic 19th century Charles W. Morgan whaling ship re-launched after nearly 75 years? Yankee was there for that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The launch left at dawn. Easing into Provincetown Harbor, the captain turned his back to the whipping flags of MacMillan Wharf and cut a quick path to the breakwater. The gaggle of reporters and dignitaries aboard craned their necks to catch a glimpse of their destination as she emerged from behind the stony wall. Couched in the early-morning gloom, the Charles W. Morgan stood at anchor, as tall and still as a Scottish castle, patiently awaiting her guests.
The call had gone out the day before that the ship would sail as planned on July 15. The clinging dampness in the air that morning was enough to confirm what the meteorologists had been warning: A front was moving in fast and would sock the Cape in with thunderstorms for days. The decision was clear: Sail now or get comfortable in Provincetown. Luckily for those of us asked to tag along on this voyage, the crew had commitments to keep in Boston.
For everyone aboard the launch, the day promised to be a memorable one. Sailing on the Morgan would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, because it’s very possible that the Morgan might never sail again in our lifetimes. The fact that she was sailing at all was a miracle five years in the making.
In the spring of 2009, while the economy wallowed in the worst of the recession, the administrators of Mystic Seaport struggled to find some plan to boost the museum’s fortunes—something that would be, as museum president Stephen White put it, “different and magnificent.” Their eyes quickly turned to the restoration of the Morgan, which had already begun the previous fall. Just to keep the ship tied to her dock, as she had been for the previous 68 years, they’d have to repair or replace everything below the waterline. How much more would it take to make her seaworthy? How much more would it take to bring her back to life? Speculation quickly turned into a plan. Once she was sound, the Morgan would sail again—the 38th voyage of her storied career—on a tour of the ports of southern New England.
On May 17th, 2014, the Morgan began her passage, easing through the mouth of the Mystic River and tasting the open sea again for the first time since 1941. At every port of call—New London, New Bedford, Vineyard Haven—she received a hero’s welcome. Now she stood poised just outside Provincetown, ready to complete the last outward-bound leg of her journey before starting back to Mystic. The care and skill of hundreds of craftsmen, sailors, and museum staffers had seen her this far; she awaited only her passengers before making the final push, racing the storm across Cape Cod Bay and then passing triumphantly through the Harbor Islands into Boston.
As we passed the breakwater, the captain opened up the engines, and we sped over the last few hundred yards to the ship. The Morgan’s triple masts loomed over our launch, and for the first time the ship seemed truly tangible. No longer a misty dream on the horizon, she welcomed us—solid, ancient, and eager.
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When the Charles W. Morgan was launched from the Jethro & Zachariah Hillman shipyard in New Bedford in 1841, she was perhaps the least romantic ship in America’s whaling fleet. While other ships were bestowed fanciful monikers, like the Meteor or the Sunbeam, the Morgan was christened after her chief investor, an aging Quaker with interests in several ships, whose only vision for the vessel was for her to make as much money for him as possible.
The Morgan was a pragmatic vessel—a business venture, pure and simple. Stretching 105 feet long and weighing 314 gross tons, she wasn’t the largest ship in the fleet or the fastest. Seeing the Morgan today, her most striking feature is her stoutness (a sailor can take 15 good paces across her deck from port to starboard). Within her ample belly, she had enough room to house 38 crew members, provisions to feed them for years if need be, and space for the thousands of barrels of whale oil that would be rendered on her deck during the voyage. She was a factory, barracks, and warehouse all rolled into one floating (and, one could presume, fetid) package.
Between the years 1841 and 1921, the Morgan had a distinguished career, making 36 voyages for various owners and hunting whales in every ocean. She was profitable, too. The flesh-and-blood Charles W. Morgan more than recouped his investment on her very first voyage. But it isn’t the fortune she made for her owners that has led to her present fame. It is, rather, the attribute most cherished by the lowly seamen who manned her: her uncanny ability to not sink.
At its peak in 1846, the American whaling fleet was 736 vessels strong, but that number quickly shrank after the Civil War. Ships were either wrecked or retired as petroleum began replacing whale oil as the country’s fuel of choice. When the Wanderer was ripped apart on the rocks of Cuttyhunk Island in 1924, the Morgan became the last surviving member of this once-august fleet. Overnight she’d gone from being a semi-retired barque to an American treasure, and people began wondering what to do with her.
The Morgan began her second life as a museum in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, where she was displayed on the private estate of Colonel E. H. R. Green from 1925 to 1936. After Green’s death (and the resulting wrangling over his will), the ship passed to the Marine Historical Association of Mystic, Connecticut, the nascent group that would become modern Mystic Seaport. Founded by old seamen and dedicated to preserving the last vestiges of the rapidly disappearing age of wooden ships, the group made the Morgan the cornerstone of their collection, and it remains so today. It’s common to hear workers at the museum refer to her as “the crown jewel.”