The 38th Voyage: Introduction
If one had to pick a statement that best sums up the latest chapter in the history of the Charles W. Morgan, a good candidate would be, “Ships are made to go to sea.” As the initiative to sail the Morgan again gathered momentum, it became increasingly clear that it was the right thing to do for America’s last remaining whaleship.
After the Morgan was hauled in November 2008 and the full scale of the restoration became apparent, it was clear the ship’s hull would be seaworthy when the project was complete. That fact got the Museum’s newly appointed president, Steve White, thinking, “Could Mystic Seaport actually sail the ship?” he wondered. “Should we? And if not, why not?”
Such an undertaking would be unprecedented for a maritime artifact of the Morgan’s age and importance, but the opportunity to take the ship back to sea and share the experience with a worldwide audience was an opportunity deemed worthy of serious consideration. A feasibility study was commissioned, and on September 26, 2009, the Museum’s Board of Trustees voted to send the Morgan on a ceremonial 38th Voyage.
The question then became, how does one sail an 1841 whaleship, while at the same time preserving her authenticity and keeping her safe? With the guidance and supervision of the U.S. Coast Guard, the consultation of the traditional sailing community and Tall Ships America, and the help of many other individuals and companies, Mystic Seaport developed a plan.
The Morgan would travel from one port to the next over the course of a single day. She would be towed out of the departure harbor until within striking distance of the destination, and then sail as much as possible, ultimately picking up the tow to make the next port before nightfall. She would at all times be accompanied by a tugboat and multiple chase vessels. Her safety was paramount.
The goal was to keep the Morgan as historically accurate as possible, while installing the necessary modern safety systems: a generator, electric bilge pumps, a diesel-powered backup pump for dewatering and fire-fighting, a new electrical system, fire and safety alarms, navigation and communication gear, and a water and marine sanitation system. The ship did not receive an engine–she would sail as she did throughout her whaling career.
The crew was comprised of 15 professional mariners, including a captain, three mates, an engineer, and a cook. They were augmented by a rotating pool of Mystic Seaport staff as deckhands. The individual chosen to command the ship was Captain Kip Files of Rockland, Maine. A seasoned mariner with more than three decades of experience in the traditional sailing community, Files is master and co-owner of the three-masted schooner Victory Chimes and the senior captain of the 1877 bark Elissa, operated by the Texas Seaport Museum in Galveston.
Joining the crew were 85 “38th Voyagers” who each sailed on one leg of the journey. Comprised of artists, writers, scientists, historians, actors, musicians, and others, the voyagers used their own perspectives and talents to document and filter their experience to share with the public. They were joined by an official “stowaway,” Ryan Leighton, who worked and lived alongside the crew and related his daily life on a blog and social media.
In selected ports, the Museum set up a 22,000 square-foot dockside exhibition to accompany tours of the ship. Anchored by a life-sized inflatable model of a sperm whale, dubbed “Spouter,” the exhibit featured information stations, hands-on activities, maritime skills demonstrations, and live music and performances. A key voyage partner, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, joined the exhibition and was a collaborator on a range of programs, including the Morgan’s three ventures into the Stellwagen Bank sanctuary off Provincetown to raise awareness for ocean conservation and America’s changing relationship with whales and the natural world.
The Morgan was launched to great fanfare on July 21, 2013, the same day she was first launched in New Bedford 172 years earlier. Work continued until her departure date, May 17, 2014. Assisted by tugboats, and with thousands of people lining the shore, the ship was carefully eased down the shallow Mystic River and towed to New London, to be fully equipped and ballasted.
On June 6, after three weeks of back-breaking work, the Morgan was towed out into Long Island Sound, cast off the tug’s hawser, and set sail. It was a moment years in the making, and the sight and feeling of the Morgan heeling in the breeze, responding to the seas, and under way under sail for the first time since 1921, validated the tremendous effort on the part of so many who made the moment happen. The ship proved to be faster and more maneuverable than anticipated. “Those shipwrights in 1841 sure knew what they were doing,” declared Captain Files.
The Morgan departed New London on June 14 to begin her tour of historic New England ports, which included Newport, Vineyard Haven, New Bedford, Provincetown, Boston, where she tied up near the USS Constitution, and back to New London and Mystic with a stop at the Cape Cod Canal to participate in its centennial celebration. The voyage lasted eight weeks.
There were many remarkable moments: beautiful sails to Newport, Vineyard Haven, and Provincetown; a joyous homecoming celebration in New Bedford; encounters with whales on Stellwagen Bank; America’s two oldest ships berthed together for the first time. Along the way nearly 65,000 people toured the ship and the dockside exhibit, experiencing public history at its best.
Undoubtedly though, the most significant aspect of the 38th Voyage was sailing the ship. No one alive had sailed an American whaleship. By sailing the Morgan, in the traditional way, the voyage helped rediscover and preserve the process and experience for a new generation. Now, returned to her berth at Chubb’s Wharf at Mystic Seaport, she is back to her role as the flagship exhibit, but one with many new stories to tell.