As the Charles W. Morgan, the world’s last surviving wooden whaleship, edged Saturday morning toward the downtown Mystic drawbridge for the first time in nearly three-quarters of a century, throngs on shore cheered, a flotilla of vessels blasted air horns, cannons roared, banners fluttered, church bells rang, chanteymen sang and a fireboat sprayed an arching plume of water over the Mystic River.
“It’s great to get such a wonderful greeting,” my buddy Bob Carlson, paddling a kayak next to me, joked, pretending to acknowledge the thousands of jubilant spectators packed on piers, lawns, sidewalks and moored boats south of Mystic Seaport, where the Morgan, pushed by a tugboat, had departed moments earlier.
We were among hundreds of kayaks, canoes, sailboats, runabouts, rowboats, inflatable dinghies, yachts, cabin cruisers and whaleboats accompanying the newly restored Morgan from the Seaport toward City Pier in New London, where workers and crew will spend the next month making final preparations for a summer-long celebratory voyage to New England’s historic ports, including New Bedford, where the vessel was built 173 years ago.
Saturday’s spectacular sendoff reminded me of the Seaport’s launch of the Amistad replica in 2000, which I also witnessed by kayak.
I applaud the Seaport for having the skill and vision to pay tribute to two vessels that were associated with dark periods in history – slavery, in the case of the Amistad, and the slaughter of whales during the Morgan’s heyday. We obviously do not honor either practice, but must heed George Santayana’s imprecation: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
When I watched the Morgan bob past the mouth of the Mystic River at Noank and enter Fishers Island Sound, I thought of how for a mercifully brief period whale oil was such a precious commodity the entire region thrived on harpooning giant marine creatures.
Many of the homes and mansions within my vision were built on the fortunes of whaling.
Having observed whales several times in their native habitat – humpbacks and minkes off Cape Cod, and one extraordinarily close encounter with a finback while kayaking from Maine’s Monhegan Island back to the mainland at Port Clyde – I can’t imagine living in an era when killing them was acceptable.
Happily, the Morgan’s whaling days are behind it.
I can’t wait to see the 113-foot ship finally hoist its sails next month and sail off in celebration of its past, and future. Bon voyage!