Readying the Charles W. Morgan to sail

When Matthew Stackpole talks about the impending voyage of the Charles W. Morgan, he lifts one of his hands in the air, makes a fist and moves it around, simulating a big whaling ship tossed about in the sea.

I suspect he is not even aware that he is doing it.

The first time I watched him do it was when he was telling the story of the Morgan being brought to Mystic Seaport in 1941.

Everett Allen, the star reporter of the New Bedford Standard Times, was aboard the Morgan for that trip from southeastern Massachusetts and described how the old ship, the last of the whalers, seemed to come alive when it was underway again.

Indeed, Stackpole likes to use that Allen quote about the ship being alive when he tells the story about how Mystic Seaport has come to prepare to send the Morgan to sea again, at the same time putting his fist in the air, moving it around.

Stackpole, the official historian of the Morgan, first got to know the ship when he was 7 years old. His father, a newspaperman from Nantucket who had become a whaling historian, had been named the curator of Mystic Seaport, and he moved his family onto the seaport grounds.

Matthew Stackpole still remembers playing aboard the Morgan, catching tadpoles from the ship's hold, after a storm had filled it with water. He and his brother used to hide behind a companionway ladder on the ship, aiming to startle visitors coming down the steps, apparently the kind of prank played by kids growing up in a maritime museum.

Back then the Morgan was literally resting in sand, before the decision had been made to restore it enough to make it float again. No fist in the air for that part of the story.

Stackpole worked one summer as a rigger for the seaport. When he applied again, the seaport manager in charge of riggers told him maybe he would rather work on a ship somewhere that moved.

Stackpole did in fact go on to work on a ship that sailed, becoming the mate aboard the 108-foot Shenandoah out of Martha's Vineyard, a ship without an engine. He remembers sailing once up the Mystic River, through the bascule bridge, right to a wharf at the seaport, all without an engine.

He and his wife also owned and took people sailing on a wooden schooner, Mya, which they later sold to Ted Kennedy. Stackpole remembers that Kennedy brought his friend Chris Dodd along with him when they took Mya on a test sail out of Vineyardhaven.

In addition to his sailing experience, Stackpole also knows his way around a museum and previously served as director of the Martha's Vineyard Museum.

Stackpole strikes me as a modest person, and as he tells the remarkable story of getting the last wooden whaling ship, a national landmark, ready to set sail, he likes to include everyone. While we chatted recently at the seaport, he couldn't help but point out a blacksmith who walked by, noting that he had crafted a new anchor chain plate for the ship, not something you can order from a catalog.

But Stackpole is one of the people who is making the 38th voyage of the Morgan possible. The major gifts officer for the project, he has spearheaded an impressive $12.5 million campaign to make it all possible.

"People tend to give money to things they care about," Stackpole said, when I asked him about how hard it was to raise money for the Morgan project, right through a recession.

"You find people who share your vision," he said.

He adds that he is proud that the donations have come in many sizes and from many corners, from money tossed in a barrel at the end of the Morgan's gangway to a distinctive grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities.

As the scheduled departure date of May 17 looms - first port of call is New London, for some sail training and the deep water needed to add ballast - Stackpole says the excitement at the seaport is palpable.

"We are pulling this off," he said.

It's not often, he notes, that a museum used to showcasing history actually gets to make history on its own.

Soon, the fist will be in the air and, as Allen would have it, the Morgan, which on its previous 37 voyages traveled the world, will seem alive again.

Allen did get one thing wrong when he wrote about that trip aboard the Morgan in November 1941.

"The Morgan is a wraith from the past, lifting her full bows on an icy swell and pointing her white jib boom toward the Mystic River," he wrote. "We are the last crew of the last American-built, half-rigged whaleship afloat in the world."

Of course they weren't the last crew after all. No one then could have guessed what lay ahead for the ship.

A new crew, already on the payroll and training, will take the Morgan the other way through the Mystic bridge it passed with pomp and ceremony 73 years ago.

The fist is almost up in the air.

This is the opinion of David Collins


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