Morgan sea trial involves lots of learning

If Sunday's sea trial is any indication, life aboard the Charles W. Morgan will be all about rope.

As the crew prepared for the 173-year-old whaling ship's upcoming journey to New England ports with a seven-hour excursion in Long Island Sound, they did just about everything you imagine with the rope: they tugged it, coiled it, uncoiled it, knotted it, climbed it, complained about it, lashed it and whipped it.

While crew member Cassie Sleeper sat cross-legged on the deck and whipped a line-that is, wrapped twine around the end of a rope to keep it from fraying-she estimated that the Morgan contains 6 to 8 miles of rope, but she's not sure how many lines that translates into.

"Too many lines," she and fellow crew member Jen Dexter agreed, laughing.

But there are more skills required to be part of the Morgan's crew than an aptitude for working with rope. Seemingly among them: an unnatural lack of anxiety about heights, an affinity for Jolly Ranchers, a voice that carries, dietary restrictions or picky eating habits (according to the ship's accommodating steward), the ability to take orders to "report to the spanker" without giggling - and doing all of the above while people snap photographs of you. A spanker is a type of sail.

The ship's first sea trial was Saturday, a windy day during which everything went smoothly, said chief mate Sam Sikkema. The crew worked well together as a team and responded well to small issues that cropped up.

Although everyone seems to agree with second mate Sean Bercaw's assessment that the Morgan is "much more nimble than anticipated," Sikkema said it's his responsibility to make sure the staff is just as agile by the time they leave New London on Saturday.

"If it's within the walls of the ship, it's my job to make sure it happens and happens right," said Sikkema. Now that they have the initial voyage under their belts, he said the crew needs to internalize what they learned about the ship and see how it operates in a variety of weather conditions.

"Learning sailing is lot of repetition," said the chief mate, and in this case requires figuring out how to respond to "the things that, not having sailed for 90 years, you don't know about the ship."

Even with prior familiarity with the ship, Sikkema said he's been noticing details about its design that he hadn't picked up before. The Morgan is "very purpose-driven," he said - lacking much of the normal equipment for being tied to the dock because it was almost always out at sea.

Most of the hands-on discoveries fall to people like Sleeper, 30, and Ryan Loftus, 25, members of the core crew and deck hands - a job Sleeper defines as "a little bit of knowledge with lots of beef."

The basics of sailing a whaler like the Morgan are documented, but there are some smaller tasks that never got recorded because they would have been common sense at the time, said Loftus.

Figuring out how to operate the Morgan is challenging "simply because no one's done it before," he said. "We kind of have to figure it out. It's like putting a puzzle together without the box to see where things go."

To someone unfamiliar with sailing, the real puzzle was the 19th-century sailing language that flew across the Morgan's deck Sunday. Not only is the vocabulary intimidating, but everyone came to the Morgan speaking a different "dialect" of sailing terms, said Sikkema, who is responsible for delivering many of the commands.

"To me, it's part of marine preservation," he said. "It's like learning a musical instrument. Once you become proficient with it, it flows."

As Sunday's trip drew to a close, Capt. Kip Files asked guests to gather around while he narrated the crew's attempts at tack-that is, turning the ship so that it sails directly toward the wind.

"It sounds complicated, but it really isn't," insisted Files. "The hard part is the timing."

Nevertheless, he let out a breathless "Isn't that cool?" as the Morgan's sails caught the wind.


Special Report: 38th Voyage


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