by Jon Persson
The whaling barque Charles W. Morgan moves through history as steadfastly, as faithfully, as her 38 previous voyages carried her across the world’s oceans. Her presence, always tangible, is a collection of knowledge, information, skills, time, energy, and lives; she is a piece and purveyor of history, of success achieved, events recorded, and now, a past way of life re-created.
Many have made their livelihood from her form and function, the builders and restorers, sailors and owners. Events, local and global, have passed by like the waters beneath her keel, though ports and nations are transformed; the players, ever-changing, enter and exit her broad decks that are stage to a portal in time. Through it all, the Charles W. Morgan remains a focal point to tell our story, now as then.
On a bitter cold day this January, a crew of three from The Resident—publisher Alexis Ann, photographer Bob O’Shaughnessy, and this reporter—observe a crew of some 32 men and women who are hard at work at the task of rebuilding the Morgan’s hull structure in preparation for her next, her 39th, voyage.
This work at Mystic Seaport represents a major conceptual shift since this last wooden whaling ship came to Mystic over 70 years ago. Then, the mission was to save the ship as a record and tribute to a chapter in history not long closed; whaling had been routinely practiced mere decades before the Morgan’s enlightened procurement. But the directors of that time placed her in a gravel berth, assuming her last voyage had been taken, with no need remaining to set her to sail again. Today, the realization has emerged that such work as restoring—and “re-living” in full measure the ways of the past—is itself the most fitting tribute to an artifact of such importance.
Dan McFadden, Director of Communications at Mystic Seaport, is our guide for the morning, leading us past the stacks of raw logs and freshly milled planks in the open shipyard. We wait as a forklift maneuvers a 40-foot oak plank into position, then leads us through a long shed which contains the keel of a long-ago ship. Finally, we come to the impressively large plastic shed which provides shelter from the wind, though not the cold, for the whaleship.
Many skills, trades, and industries are represented in the entity of the Charles W. Morgan. For her original builders, toiling to finish the ship in 1841, this was an expression of state-of-the art knowledge, the sawyer and shipbuilder, caulking gang and sparmaker, ropewalk and sailmaker. Every piece was wrought and cut by hand-wielded tools: the adze and broadaxe, blacksmith’s hammer, and cooper’s drawknife.
To understand the adzeman’s fatigue and feeling of accomplishment, one must take adze in hand, and hew hard timber to complex shape and bevel, and make the parts and pieces of a wooden ship.
For Quentin Snediker, director of the shipyard at Mystic Seaport, the restoration of the Charles W. Morgan is a considerable yet thoroughly doable project. The launch date, July 21, 2013, is the 172nd anniversary of her original launching and still looms as a distant port on a long and complex voyage.
“I’m confident we will make the deadline,” says Quentin, who has budgeted one hour to answer questions. “There was more damage to the original structure than we originally anticipated,” he laments, but the necessary work has proceeded in a timely manner.
Indeed, when the project was first conceived, it was purely for the preservation of an historic artifact. But, as the work began in earnest, the decision was made to return the Morgan to her natural habitat, the open sea. For Quentin, this was an a continuation of a life spent at such work. “I first worked at Mystic in the 1980’s,” he says, but later moved on to other museums before returning “to head up the Amistad project,” the building and outfitting of the freedom schooner. After the Amistad’s completion, the lift dock at Mystic Seaport was refurbished, making possible the hauling and restoration of the Charles W. Morgan.
A Whaler’s Rebuilding
Frames, sawn and adzed to shape in overlapping segments, have been fitted and installed, using the wood called live oak, some rescued from the Hurricane Katrina aftermath. “We make every effort to preserve original material, in keeping with good preservation practice,” continues Quentin. He notes that “15 to 18 percent of the original construction” from 1841 remains. All original wood removed is cataloged and preserved, notes Quentin. “Wooden ships can be continuously regenerated,” Quentin says, adding that “wooden vessels rot from the top down,” the result of fresh water providing an environment for the growth of wood-destroying fungus. On the plus side, he adds that “the bottom section has been in salt water,” a brine which is a natural wood preservative.
In addition to the new framing, more than a hundred planks are being replaced on the Morgan. White oak is used at bow and stern, and yellow pine at the midsections, and the heavy boards sawn in the yard’s chainsaw mill by Bob Delnickas and crew. Known to friends and co-workers as Bobby D, he made the move from pharmaceutical salesman to shipwright several years ago. “I attended the International Yacht Restoration School in Newport, Rhode Island, says Bobby, “learning boat systems and then yacht restoration.” Bobby started work at Mystic Seaport some six months ago: “I’m a Level Two Shipwright, and apprentice,” he says, adding that, “Working at a place like this is a learning experience.”
The boards cut by Bobby D and his crew are 10 inches wide and up to 40 feet in length; they are then run through a heavy thickness planer. “About 60 percent of a log is waste,” explains Bobby D “you can usually get three to four planks out of a single log.” Each plank must then be cut to shape to fit the previous plank, using a spiling board to transfer the curve and widths required.
A large steambox sits outside the Morgan’s protective, plastic shed, where 200-degree wet steam turns green-lumber boards into pliable pieces that may be bent around the Morgan’s hull. This shaping is a task requiring many hands, plus clamps, wedges, ropes, and raw strength. Fastenings are intermittent bronze spikes, filled out with 1-1/8 inch diameter black locust trunnels (essentially, large dowels), splayed with lignum vitae wedges at the outer end.
“The trunnels must be of dry stock, so they swell upon contact with the water,” explains Quentin. It is the same method used to fasten the planking of wooden ships for many centuries.
The planking is then caulked with oakum over cotton, continues Quentin, the strands driven home with mallet and caulking irons. Caulk is a part of the structure of wooden ships, the caulking driven hard to harden the ship’s hull, more than simply keeping water out.
“We take a 25- to 30-year view on a restoration such as this,” explains Quentin. It’s a normal timeframe for the care and maintenance of such a vessel, with major interventions required at roughly those intervals to preserve the vessel. The work being done now will last “fifty or more years,” Quentin says, with future work most likely being required in other areas.
The Next Voyage: New London in 2014
After her launching on July 21, the Charles W. Morgan will complete her re-rigging and preparation for her return to sea. Then, in the spring of 2014, she will be moved to New London; the deeper harbor will allow for her final ballasting and rigging-out. Initial sea trials will be made out of New London, where her crew will be able to fine-tune the rig while perfecting the points of sailing the barque. Her rig will indeed be as it has been since the early 1900’s, a barque; though it is known she was originally ship-rigged, with squaresails on all masts.
And finally, the Charles W. Morgan will return to the sea. She will undertake an ambitious voyage for a ship of 172 years, unparalleled in the annals of sailing history. She will make ports of call in Newport, Martha’s Vineyard, New Bedford (her homeport), Provincetown, and Boston.
In her prime, the Charles W. Morgan was an exemplar of the industry, the pursuer and processor of whale oil, source of improved lighting for several American generations. Her working career spanned some 80 years. Sharing in her success were the barrel makers, whaleboat builders, lampmakers, shopkeepers, and the many shipmates who partook in the multi-year voyages in search of adventure and financial success. She was part of a fleet and trade that very nearly drove the source of its own fortunes into extinction—until the discovery of more ancient oils from long-extinct creatures drove the whaling fleet off the seas and saved the magnificent whales from man’s enterprising spirit.
We cannot stand in judgment of what past generations could not have known. But the cycles of industries once prosperous falling into obsolescence or to depletion of resources continues; and yet, when the Charles W. Morgan sets sail in 2014, she will be powered, now as then and for the years to come, by the power of breezes stirred by the energy of the sun.