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Could the next captain of the Charles W. Morgan be a woman?

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published September 08. 2013 4:00AM

Mystic Seaport has begun a search for a captain for the Charles W. Morgan, someone to take command of the freshly restored whaleship for its ceremonial 38th voyage next summer.

Why not a woman to take charge of the 172-year-old ship, the last of the wooden whalers?

After all, if the Morgan were still in commercial service, it is possible a woman would have surfaced by now as one of her captains. Just look at our oceangoing community here in eastern Connecticut, where a woman heads the Coast Guard Academy and women are serving aboard submarines.

It also wouldn't be the first time a woman took a role in the command of the Morgan.

John F. Leavitt, in his 1973 book, "The Charles W. Morgan," writes that, in a voyage that began in 1909, Capt. Charles S. Church took command of the ship mid-trip, after the original captain took ill. Church was accompanied by his wife, the former Charlotte Ott, daughter of a San Francisco ship's pilot, who became the Morgan's assistant navigator and log keeper.

Charlotte Church, who made a regular practice of setting adrift bottles with notes giving the name of the vessel, position and weather conditions, signed on for a second voyage on the Morgan out of New Bedford in 1910.

One remarkable aspect of the history of the Morgan, one it will be good to remember prominently for its next voyage, was the great diversity of the ship's crew over the years.

In his book "The Charles W. Morgan: The Last Wooden Whaleship," Edouard A. Stackpole wrote of the Morgan's last trip from New Bedford to Mystic in 1941, under tow.

The Morgan, which was a "virtual derelict" at the time, still had a "shabby dignity" when it was moved to Mystic, Stackpole wrote.

He wrote of what seemed like the "ghostly crews of other days" on that trip, "mates, white, yellow and black" whom he described "lending a hand in guiding their ship on its voyage into history."

Curiously, as Stackpole tells the story, the Morgan did not make it to Mystic on that trip from New Bedford, getting diverted instead to New London because there was a big barge in the way at the mouth of the Mystic River, in Noank.

Next year, as the Morgan makes its way back to New Bedford, it will again stop in New London, this time to have a ballast added and for sail training for the new crew.

On the eve of the Morgan's next historic voyage, the Seaport is mindful of the importance of the qualifications of the ship's next captain, someone who needs not only to safely and capably command the vessel as it sets sail again but also help tell its story.

One potential woman captain recruit who comes to mind is Eliza Garfield, one of the early captains of the Seaport-built Amistad, who made a few successful ocean crossings in that ship, including one to the heart of slave history, on the West Coast of Africa.

Garfield, who has a history of commanding sail training tall ships, holds a doctorate from Harvard in philosophy and history of education and would be an excellent choice to tell and teach the story of the Morgan next year.

I am sure there are other qualified women, and men, up to the challenge and honor of taking the Morgan to sea again.

Maybe, in 2014, the Morgan will have a captain that represents the wide diversity of her many crews, all those mates, white, yellow and black, who took her to every ocean.

The good news is that the Seaport is starting early in its quest to find someone for this temporary, full-time position.

As they say in the job listing, the new captain will be responsible for "the premier artifact in the museum's collection as well as one of the nation's most important historic objects."

It's a tall order.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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