Launch of whaling ship Charles W. Morgan has Midcoast connectionMaritime enthusiasts around world watch historic ship return to water
Mystic, Conn. — Thousands of people, including many standing or sitting on the shore and others in various watercraft on the river, descended upon the sun-splashed region in and around Mystic Seaport Sunday afternoon, July 21 to watch a piece of maritime history officially return to life, thanks, in part, to the efforts of a Camden native and Rockland-based boat-building organization.
After a five-year restoration, the Charles W. Morgan, the world's sole surviving wooden whaling ship, was launched into the Mystic River at Mystic Seaport — The Museum of America and the Sea — on Sunday with the event watched in person by thousands, and streamed live online to countless others around the world.
And playing significant roles in the historic event were Mystic Seaport President Stephen White, a native of Camden, as well as The Apprenticeshop in Rockland, which built one of the 10 sailing/rowing whaleboats that will be aboard the glorious ship. The Apprenticeshop boat sailed from Rockland to Mystic for the launch.
Video from the event appears below. Also, see links to ceremony, photos and other stories on the launch.
The launch of the Morgan came on the 172nd anniversary of the ship's initial launch July 21, 1841. It originally was launched in New Bedford, Mass. The Morgan is America’s oldest commercial ship still afloat — only the USS Constitution is older.
On Sunday afternoon, the ship, a National Historic Landmark, was carefully lowered into the water in a public ceremony to float on her own bottom for the first time since 2008.
“This launch is a milestone in the life of this great ship,” said White during his speech. “Today she turns 172 years old and we hope this restoration will help preserve her for another 172, so that future generations will be able to walk her decks and hear her tell the important story of our nation’s shared maritime heritage.”
The Morgan‘s overall length is 113 feet, with a 27-foot 6-inch beam and depth of 17 feet 6 inches. Her main truck is 110 feet above the deck; fully-rigged, and she is capable of carrying approximately 13,000 square feet of sail. The huge try-pots used for converting blubber into whale oil are forward; below are the cramped quarters in which her officers and men lived for years at a time.
Essentially, a ship once used to hunt and kill whales has been restored to a vessel of "scientific and educational exploration whose cargo is knowledge and whose mission is to promote awareness of the maritime heritage of the United States and the conservation of the species the Morgan hunted," according to a U.S. Senate Resolution passed last week commemorating the Morgan’s launch. The resolution bestowed upon her the title of “Ambassador to the Whales.”
Another Maine resident, Sarah Bullard of Boothbay, the great-great-great granddaughter of Charles W. Morgan, smashed the ceremonial christening bottle on the bow of the boat, a bottle which contained water from the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, the seas upon which the Morgan sailed for 80 years.
Water from new Bedford, where she was built in 1841; Mystic, where she arrived in 1941; Monterey, California, which she visited in 1844; the Azores, where she visited in 1845 and later years; Argentina (1868) and Mauritius (1872) were combined on July 19 in a "blending of the waters" ceremony.
In the late spring/summer of 2014, the Morgan will commence a ceremonial 38th voyage. She will sail from Mystic Seaport back to her old home port of New Bedford and beyond to six other ports in three New England states.
"Today, the Morgan's role is to serve as a portal to the past, not for a romantic nostalgic journey, but rather as an authentic pathway to help us remember and learn from all the stories she represents and reflects, that influenced the nation and society we are today," stated the program for Sunday's launch. "She can help us better understand who we are, and to use what we learned in the past to help improve today and tomorrow," stated the program for the ceremony.
Over the past five years, the Morgan has undergone a meticulous restoration at the hands of the Seaport's shipwrights. "In November 2008, when the Morgan was hauled out to commence the restoration of her hull from the waterline to the keel, the dream of sailing her again seemed beyond reach," White stated in another July 21 ceremony prior to the launch.
But years of fundraising and the work of many resulted in the ship being put back in the water Sunday.
Now begins the process of fitting her to return to the sea once more, in 2014, for a celebratory 38th voyage.
The focus of the project was to address the hull below the waterline, the majority of which dated to the ship’s original construction. The final phase that begins now will involve rigging, restoring her interior, and installing temporary systems necessary to take her back to sea for a ceremonial 38th voyage (the ship completed 37 voyages during her whaling career).
For more than two centuries, the nation's whaling fleet, totaling 2,700 vessels, helped fuel the country's economic, political and cultural growth, and defined the energetic young nation's place in the world. The success of this industry set the stage for America's emergence as a global force and world leader.
And, with that, only one vessel remains from those epic times, the Charles W. Morgan. "Today, as the oldest commercial vessel afloat, her cargo is no longer oil and whalebone; instead, it is inspiration, history, and knowledge," said the launch ceremony program
Over an 80-year whaling career, the Morgan embarked on 37 voyages, most lasting three years or more. Built for durability, not speed, she roamed every corner of the globe in her pursuit of whales. Upon spying a whale, she would lower her boats and the crew would set out seeking to harpoon their prey. If successful, the whale would be towed back to the ship to be processed for its oil, bone, teeth, baleen, and other materials. The search was time-consuming and laborious; days and weeks of boredom followed by moments of terror.
Known as a “lucky ship,” the Morgan successfully navigated crushing Artic ice, hungry cannibals, countless storms, yet throughout her career she never failed to return a healthy profit to her owners. That luck continued in her retirement from whaling in 1921. After a brief movie career as a set in films, she was bought by a wealthy investor who put her on display at his waterfront estate near New Bedford. Upon his death, she was derelict for some time, but survived the hurricane of 1938 and eventually made her way to Mystic Seaport (then the Maritime Historical Association) on the eve of Pearl Harbor in November, 1941. She has been here since.
The Morgan will continue to be open for museum visitors to board while the restoration continues.
To follow the progress of the Charles W. Morgan, the plans for her 38th voyage, and ways to support the Morgan, go online to mysticseaport.org.
Read more on the launch, view photos and watch the entire launch ceremony by clicking here.
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Ken Waltz has been member of the media 30 years and has received hundreds of Maine Press Association and New England Press Association awards for his writing, photography and page design. He studied journalism at the University of Maine in Orono. He lives in South Thomaston with his wife, Sarah. The couple has an adult son, Brandon.
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