Generations of New Londoners scan the waters just beyond the Thames River, hoping for the first spotting of a whaling ship due to complete the first leg of her voyage into freshly charted history. The day is clear, with a fresh and fair breeze, and anticipation ripples through the leisurely crowd on New London’s City Pier. And then, she appears a figure on a passage across time and into the logbooks of new generations.
The Charles W. Morgan approaches the conclusion of this first venture onto the seas in seventy-three years with a cautious grace, testing the waters slowly despite the obvious confidence her keepers have in her ability to make the passage. It is a reverential handling of America’s oldest commercial ship, the last wooden whaling ship, the lucky vessel which plied a world of oceans for eighty years, to retire at the age of one hundred in a berth of gravel. Her role is that of teacher now, young generations born long after the heavy work of whaling had long since become passé. The thousands, the tens of thousands, who have walked her decks over the past decades have done so from a stationary perch on history’s long unfolding tale.
May 17th, 2014, a Saturday, marks the day when the Morgan returns to sea and becomes a dynamic instrument of teachable moments. A ship is not built to be forever berthed, and waters flow under keels whether they are docked or underway. To bring the experience of a wooden whaling ship into ports where once they were a part of the common commerce is an obvious step which still requires the steady influence of knowledgeable people to direct the process forward.
The Charles W. Morgan grows larger as the distance to her waiting dockage grows shorter. The black hull and partially rigged spars, awaiting the sails which will be set for the first time at sea in decades, follows the lead of fireboats which announce her arrival behind spumes of water, which emulate the spouting of great whales whose generations have also passed to time. For this first venture at sea, the Morgan is under tow, with small craft offering steering nudges along the way.
A fleet of four whaleboats have rowed along with her, the lithe double-ended craft which once, bravely or foolishly, challenged the great leviathons of the sea to mortal combat in the name of commerce and lamplight fuel. Today their crews are volunteers, honored to escort iconic ship on her latest voyage into history
And finally the great ship is at City Pier, her second ever visit to this once great center of whaling. She brings with her opportunities to board the ship, to visit onshore displays and educational tents, to row in the whaleboats that have accompanied her. This is the mission now, to teach of old ways and old days, and thereby provide a perspective on how life today may effect life a century from now.
The unimaginably hard and austere life of a whaling ship crew was once commonly acceptable, the hunting of whales to near extinction a normalcy. The oceans were vast, uncharted, mysterious, and seemingly inexhaustible then; we have knowledge now, born of this historical experience, yet we too will one day be seen as unwise in our use of Earth’s resources. There are many lessons and much wisdom to be gleaned from a whaling ship on a new voyage of discovery.
The weekends of May 24-25 and May 31-June 1st will be open to the public for tours of the Charles W. Morgan, for dockside events, and observe the whale boats. More information may be found on the great oceans at www.mysticseaport.org.