Whale-watching on the Charles W. Morgan
This summer’s remarkable 38th Voyage of Mystic Seaport’s Charles W. Morgan has brought a lot of firsts, including a big one: No one was still alive who had ever sailed a wooden American sailing ship, until now.
There have also been a number of curious and interesting reunions.
There was the major reunion, of course, of returning the whale ship to its longtime homeport of New Bedford, Mass., the city whose name still appears in gold on the transom of the 19th century ship.
On board for the New Bedford homecoming were descendants both of Charles W. Morgan, the ship’s first owner, and of Herman Melville, whose work deepened America’s cultural connection to whaling.
More recently in the voyage, the seaport, in its resolve to invite a wide range of guests who can interpret the experience in different ways, included representatives of the New Zealand Whaling Museum of Mangonui, where the Morgan made many port calls on its Pacific voyages.
Jan Ferguson of the museum told me her time on the Morgan felt like a reunion, since she looks every day, when she’s home, at Doubtless Bay, named by Capt. Cook, where the Morgan often anchored. A depiction of the Morgan there hangs in her museum.
But the principal reunion, a reunion of sorts anyway, has been the ship’s visit this weekend to the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, where the Morgan sailed among humpback and finback whales.
On trips Friday and Saturday — a third is scheduled today — the Morgan was surrounded again by whales, maneuvering among them under sail.
Capt. Kip Files said one whale came so close Friday that the ship had to be careful not to hit it.
The excitement on deck of the big whaling ship was palpable Saturday as some of the whales first came into sight, doing the things whales do: breaching, spouting, spouting quite loudly, actually, feeding, mouths open, and showing a lot of whale tail.
There was no actual shout of “Whale Ho!”, as the old Morgan crews might have heard, at the exciting first sighting, a call to the hunt.
In fact, there was an awed hush much of Saturday afternoon on the deck of the Morgan.
“I feel like there has to be something better to say than ‘wow,’” one Morgan visitor said.
Author Nathaniel Philbrick, whose book, “In the Heart of the Sea,” about the sinking of the whaleship Essex, is being made into a major motion picture, was a guest on the Morgan Saturday.
“It’s hard to articulate,” Philbrick suggested, when asked about a day among the whales aboard the last wooden whaling ship.
And that’s from someone who won the National Book Award for his work about whaling.
The wow of it all was felt not just aboard the Morgan. The rails of the big whale-watching tour boats, which visit Stellwagen from Provincetown, appeared Saturday to be taking more pictures of the big whaling ship under sail than of the whales.
After all, the whales will be there next week. The Morgan won’t.
Bill DiFrancesco, the ship’s engineer, claims a long connection to the Morgan. He said his parents were frequent visitors to the seaport and that his mother once said she was pregnant with him when she toured the Morgan.
DiFrancesco was up in the rigging Saturday, in the crow’s nest, an unlikely perch for the ship’s engineer, but one he could not resist, when the Morgan was sailing among the whales.
He said you could see the whales underwater from a distance as they prepared to surface near the ship.
“It was an experience of a lifetime,” DiFrancesco said.
Crew members who climbed back on the deck of the ship, from the whaleboat they rowed among the whales, had very big and long-lasting smiles that seemed to say the same thing: Experience of a lifetime.
After all, it’s been a very long time since anyone lowered a whaleboat from a wooden whaling ship, to go rowing after whales.
Seaport President Stephen White, who first raised the idea of sailing the Morgan again while a restoration of its hull was being finished, was quick to welcome the whaleboat crew back aboard Saturday.
And in remarks at the end of the sail, he thanked the crew for their professionalism in handling the ship so well.
Each leg of the trip has been distinct and interesting in its own way, White said.
In visiting Boston next week, the Morgan will be moored along the USS Constitution, the country’s oldest merchant ship beside the oldest Naval ship. It will be Mystic Seaport Night at Fenway Park July 18, for a “Whale of a Game,” and Capt. Files will throw out the first pitch.
Files said he has been practicing his pitching skills on the deck of the Morgan.
After the Boston visit, the Morgan will be at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy for a celebration of the 100-year anniversary of the Cape Cod Canal. New London’s tall ship, The Coast Guard Eagle, will be there, too.
When the Morgan returns to New London at the end of the month, where extra ballast will be removed so that it can make it back up the Mystic River to the seaport, it will do some more local day sails.
But when it is back at City Pier, in Connecticut’s whaling city, the only whale nearby will be cast in bronze, the whale that every day shows its tail while diving into Parade Plaza.
This is the opinion of David Collins.