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There were a lot of superlatives to consider in the historic homecoming to New Bedford Wednesday of the whaling ship Charles W. Morgan.
There was certainly the spectacle of it all, the last of the world’s wooden whaling ships making its way across Buzzard’s Bay under sail, at a brisk 8 knots in a generous afternoon southwesterly wind.
The majestic sailing ship, at a slight heel, was trailed by an assortment of pleasure boats following alongside and behind, eager to keep this rare sight, a whaler seeming to sail right out of history, in full view.
Airplanes and a helicopter circled overhead, to record this new voyage in the ship’s uncanny continuation of history.
Then there was the celebratory homeward leg, as the Morgan neared the city named in gold letters on its transom, trailing behind two New Bedford fireboats as hundreds of onlookers watched from shore.
On board were direct descendants of Charles W. Morgan, the first owner who launched the ship in 1841, and Herman Melville, whose great work on whaling, the American classic Moby-Dick, was set aboard a sister ship.
“We did it,” said Stephen C. White, president of Mystic Seaport and principal architect of the museum’s daring venture to send its most treasured artifact to sea again.
Still, the impression that will linger for me from the remarkable trip from Vineyard Haven to New Bedford Wednesday was a visit down below in which I spotted a pineapple, destined to be cut up for one of the crew’s meals, sitting on a table outside the captain’s quarters.
The ship was creaking a bit at the time. Up on deck crew members were shouting orders — “brace it up,” “one more sweat starboard” — as they arranged sails in the ship’s enormous rig with a dizzying number of lines that all lead down to the deck, finally becoming “spaghetti” when piled in loose coils all over.
Down below, the watery horizon was visible through a few small ports as the ship made her way to port. And the pineapple was at the ready, for when the hardworking crew finally made it there for rest and to eat.
The Morgan is indeed alive again, not just by virtue of her sailing so magnificently, but because there is a crew living aboard the ship, their gear stowed in the bunks, watch assignments posted on the cabin walls, food waiting for them on the table.
From this perspective, the Morgan is no longer a museum exhibit, but a working ship, with a crew that is getting as accustomed to sailing it as so many crew members who shipped out of New Bedford on the Morgan a century ago or longer.
White noted that the ship, after its latest restoration at the seaport’s own shipyard, has probably never been in better condition since its first voyage, which lasted more than three years.
Aboard Wednesday for the symbolic trip back to New Bedford were many of the people who have helped make it happen, including J. Barclay Collins II (no relation), chairman of the seaport’s board of trustees, one of the many seaport officials whom New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell praised for having the “audacity” to take on such a bold project as returning the Morgan to sea.
Quentin Snediker, director of the seaport’s shipyard and steward of the Morgan’s long and careful restoration, said Wednesday that, after more than a half dozen trips sailing on the ship, he is now getting accustomed to the new sensation of feeling it roll and pitch under way.
I did catch sight of Snediker on his way up one of the companionways, back from checking the bilges. She was shipping a reassuringly small amount of sea water into the hull, he said.
Capt. Kip Files, the Morgan’s captain, seemed almost gleeful Wednesday at the ship’s impressive performance in about 15 knots of June wind. Files has a cool manner in directing the crew he assembled and helped train to sail the Morgan again, a daunting task given that, as Files likes to point out, the club of people who have ever sailed a whaling ship is very small indeed.
He also joked Wednesday that the Morgan appeared to be the fastest whaling ship on Buzzard’s Bay. And I thought he must have especially delighted in delivering the command to drop the tow line from an accompanying tug boat, as the Morgan made the turn from Vineyard Sound toward Quick’s Hole in the Elizabeth Islands, for the last leg home to New Bedford.
On all segments of what the seaport is calling the Morgan’s 38th voyage, special guests, writers, artists and historians, have been invited to help interpret and record the history being made.
Wednesday’s guests included a Melville scholar, a professor of ethnomusicology studying the cultural impacts of music from whaling ships and an artist from England who is working on a project exploring women who dressed as men to go to sea. She cut her hair last week, before her trip on the Morgan, and was wearing tight garments to approximate what women hiding themselves on the crews of whaling ships might have worn.
All the guests were invited to share their thoughts on the Morgan voyage in a group chat before the ship set out from Vineyard Haven. There were more than a few watery eyes, as people talked about their own work and history and the significance of the trip.
Mayor Mitchell, who is spearheading New Bedford’s efforts to build a new industry for the city in wind generation, told the group that the Morgan’s visit comes at an interesting time, as the city works to reinvent itself.
The city that helped light the world with whale oil is now envisioning helping to light it with wind.
Mitchell suggested it might be more than a coincidence that he is New Bedford’s 38th mayor, sailing on the Morgan’s 38th voyage, home to New Bedford.
White told everyone, as they prepared to board the waiting whale ship: “Today is history. Enjoy it. Savor it.”
I think most everyone did.
This is the opinion of David Collins.