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The world’s last surviving wooden whaling ship, the Charles W. Morgan, completed the first leg of its 38th voyage Sunday as it sailed into the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in 93 years.
After a nearly 12-hour trip from New London to Fort Adams State Park in Newport, R.I., a few dozen people greeted the 106-foot whaling vessel at South Alofsin Pier late Sunday afternoon. Throughout the approximately 45-mile trip, the Morgan had an entourage of sailboats and motorboats — at times too close for comfort — following it.
The tugboat that will accompany the ship during its two-month journey towed it through Fishers Island Sound and off Watch Hill, R.I. before releasing the Morgan to sail on its own to Point Judith, R.I. As the Morgan neared Point Judith, the winds died, forcing the tugboat to slowly tow it the rest of the way to Newport where it was refused entry for at least 30 minutes because of a sailboat race.
“God forbid those modern yachts let in such a historic vessel,” said a frustrated Capt. Richard “Kip” Files of Rockland, Maine.
The ship’s crew and guests who came from different professions with varying levels of experience were given 30 more minutes to experience life on a whaler — seasickness and tar-stained elbows from climbing lines. This unique group sought inspiration and took part in bringing to life a vessel that began its 80-year whaling career in 1841.
“You can just feel that she is happy and she wants to go and wants to sail again,” said Aaron Gralnik, a professional deckhand on the Morgan.
The clear skies, fair winds from the north and west and calm Atlantic Ocean with a slight southeast swell set the ship and its crew off to a safe start on Sunday as it began a two-month journey to historic New England ports following its five-year restoration.
Morgan enthusiasts waved goodbye to the ship at City Pier in New London at 6:30 a.m. Sunday, a day later than initially planned. Rough conditions on Saturday had postponed the trip to Sunday.
The Morgan will stay in Newport until Wednesday when it will leave for Martha’s Vineyard. It will then visit New Bedford, Provincetown, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, Boston and the Cape Cod Canal.
“This is amazing — something that none of us at the museum had anticipated in our careers,” said Glenn Gordinier, the Robert G. Albion historian at Mystic Seaport. “So to see it come to fruition is just amazing.”
Gordinier was captivated when the Morgan rose to the swell of the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in more than 90 years. He spent time admiring how the shadows on the floors and walls of the “blubber room” rocked back and forth as the Morgan swayed in the sea. He said he had been below deck dozens of times while working at Mystic Seaport but that this was an entirely different experience.
Two crew members debated the way the rigging should be set up next to Gordinier, and he said he loved listening in because they were the same discussions that were heard on the ship more than a century ago.
“There is always an element of uncertainty, but she is in the best hands,” he said. “So no real worry, but we all know the ocean is a big space.”
The only scare most passengers had were the loud booms from cannon blanks being fired from the Rena, a yacht owned by one of the Mystic Seaport board members, early in the day and rounds from the Tree of Life schooner as the Morgan neared Newport.
“They are honoring us,” said Norman Angus of Old Lyme, a former Seaport volunteer and a guest on board.
The Morgan responded quickly in the afternoon by saluting the Tree of Life with its own blank cannon rounds and the Rena as it sailed close to the Morgan again.
Files said he was taking the Morgan a “little gentle” because the wind was stronger than he had anticipated. The vessel made six knots for a little while during the mid-morning and by 10:45 a.m. the ship was back down to three and a half to four knots, he said.
“Nobody is in it for the terror,” Files said. “That’s not the point of sailing. You have to be able to take it in.”
If the vessel were to sail faster, he would have to send the crew back up the rigging and then if the wind sped up, he would have to send them up again, he added.
“It’s not like a modern vessel where you push a button or pull a chain,” he said.
The 15 professional sailing crew members along with Mystic Seaport crew members who rotate onto trips were hard at work throughout the day hoisting sails and striking sails.
“You’re beasts! You’re beasts! You’re beasts!” cheered Cassie Sleeper, a senior deckhand and the medical deckhand.
She was encouraging Mystic Seaport sailing deck hands to put all their strength into belaying lines on a pin on the rail of the ship.
They know how to handle the lines and haul lines and have knowledge of the commands, but there are technical words they have to become more familiar with, such as “tacking” or turning the ship and “furling” or wrapping up a sail.
“It’s trial by fire,” she said. “Most of the tall ship industry is learning by doing.”
Alan Schaeffer of Mystic, a member of the rotating crew, said he had been on the first sea trial but that “there is an infinite amount to learn.”
“Remember, no one who is alive has sailed a ship like this until last week,” Schaeffer said.
Also aboard the vessel were about nine “38th Voyagers” who were selected to sail aboard the Morgan and come from various professions and disciplines. During each leg of the 38th voyage different professionals will be aboard in order to inspire their work, such as poetry, improving maritime education, producing garments worn by American men during the 18th and 19th centuries and examining the public’s perception of whales.
Mystic-based poet Joanie DiMartino said her work would be inspired by how seasick she became on the trip. One of the captains’ wives, Clara Tinkham, was regularly seasick, DiMartino said, and now her writing would be better “influenced.”
Helen Poulos, a postdoctoral fellow at Wesleyan University’s college of environment, said she is interviewing guests on the Morgan and plans to write a scholarly journal article about how people’s view of whales have changed after the International Whaling Commission put the international moratorium on whaling in place in 1986.
Tyler Putman, a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at the University of Delaware, said the trip helps him learn why sailors wore the clothes they did. In the late 1700s a fashionable middle-class man in New London would have worn a “long coat” and pants that were similar to knickers, he said. But the sailors wore short jackets and regular trousers so their clothing would not get stuck in the equipment, Putman said.
“I think I watched Peter Pan one too many times,” said Matthew Ecklund, an artist and head educator for Call of the Sea, a nonprofit that teaches youth about sailing and marine mammals.
He said he prefers to be at sea to “practice art as life.” Even coiling a line is art, he said.
“Participating on this trip is like a dream come true,” he said.