Jun 13, 2014
01:00 PM

Whaling Ship Charles W. Morgan Arrives in Rhode Island; Historic Voyage’s First Leg

Editor’s note: And she’s off! The Charles W. Morgan the oldest commercial vessel still afloat, left Connecticut waters Sunday, June 15, as part of her first voyage in more than 90 years. The boat, which is a National Historic Landmark, completed the first leg of her historic 38th Voyage when she sailed from New London to Newport, R.I.
Mystic Seaport spokesman, Dan McFadden, said this leg of the voyage went exceptionally well.
“We had a great sail yesterday,” he told Connecticut Magazine Monday morning.

“The weather conditions on Sunday could not have been more perfect. We were able to tow the Morgan through Fisher’s Island Sound and Watch Hill Passage, which gave people on the shoreline the opportunity to come out and watch the ship go by. One of the highlights of the day was seeing several hundred people turn out on the lawn in front of Watch Hill Light.
“We set all available sail and cruised along the Rhode Island shoreline until Point Judith, when the wind began to peter out and picked up a tow from the tugboat to get us into Newport harbor.
“It was a great sail. The crew was able to put the ship through her paces and we are really getting a feeling for what it was like to sail on a whaleship back in the 1800s.”
The Morgan cast off from City Pier in New London at 6:15 a.m. and she tied up at Fort Adams in Newport at 6 p.m. She’ll be open to the public at Fort Adams on Tuesday, June 17, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Follow the Charles W. Morgan live

The vessel had been scheduled to leave New London last Saturday but sailing conditions off of Point Judith, R.I., were expected to be choppy.

“The cold front that is passing through will most likely leave the sea state in the area quite agitated, more so than we feel is appropriate for the Morgan. By delaying a day, we give the waters time to calm down,” said Dana Hewson, the vice president for watercraft preservation and programs at Mystic Seaport, in a statement last week.
Last week, the Morgan’s captain and crew took the ship out on a series of daylong practice sailing runs. It was the first time the ship had sailed in more than 90 years. After the final training exercise June, the ship’s captain, Kip Files, told Connecticut Magazine that the Morgan had performed better than expected.
“The ship continues to amaze me. Her sailing qualities are better than we had hoped,” he said. “We are ready to leave New London and show the rest of New England what a vessel she is.”
McFadden, Mystic Seaport’s spokesman, is also impressed with the way the Morgan has performed. “We could not be more pleased about the ship’s performance.  We expected her to sail fairly well based on her lines, but she exceeded even our most optimistic estimates. She is faster, turns well, and in general is very responsive for a ship of her size and shape. She sails really well and we are looking forward to some good passages during the voyage." 
See our full story on the Morgan below. 

When the Charles W. Morgan left Mystic Seaport in May for the beginning of its first voyage in more than 90 years, emotions ran high. Crowds gathered on the dock and on the shores of the Mystic River, celebratory cannons were fired and a flotilla of smaller craft followed the vessel—which was built in 1841 and last sailed in 1921—on its route. On the deck of the Morgan many longtime Mystic Seaport employees shed tears of joy. But Kip Files, the Morgan’s captain, couldn’t pay much attention to any of it, as he was busy making sure the vessel—the last wooden whaleship and oldest commercial ship still afloat—didn’t crash.

"My concentration level is pretty high. I’ve learned to zone stuff out and just be able to talk to the crew,” says Files, a traditional sailing expert from Rockland, Maine, who was selected by Mystic Seaport to command the vessel’s 38th voyage.

A tugboat was powering the Morgan's journey, but Files still had his hands full. At its deepest, the Mystic River is barely deep enough to support a ship of the Morgan's size and tight turns are necessary to avoid the river’s more shallow sections. The vessel also had to be navigated through the Mystic River Bascule Bridge, which Files describes as “quite narrow.”  

Read our last story on the Morgan's voyage and the ship's whaling history

Files' concentration paid off and the Morgan traveled to the City Pier in New London (which was one of the busiest whaling ports in the 1800s), thus completing the first leg of its historic journey (which has been written about in The New York Times and Smithsonian Magazine).

Now Files and his crew are readying the vessel for the next, even more significant milestone in its voyage: its first sailing exercise. On June 7 (weather permitting), the vessel will leave the pier in New London, fully rigged and with sails billowing (hopefully) in the wind for the first time in nearly 100 years. This will be the first of several sailing exercises that will allow the crew to get a feel for the ship.

According to a Mystic Seaport post, the sea trials are scheduled for June 7, 8, 11 and 12. "The ship will depart City Pier at roughly 9:30 a.m. each morning (weather permitting) and return by 5 p.m. Her course and activities will be determined by the wind conditions. Capt. Files hopes to drill the crew on as many maneuvers as possible," the post says.

"It’s a historic event. To take this vessel out and put her through her paces is a unique opportunity,” Files told Connecticut Magazine. “She’s actually a moving living thing again.”

After its sailing exercises, the ship will leave New London between June 14 and 16 (depending on weather) and sail for Newport, R.I. where it will be open to the public on June 17. In addition it will stop at Vineyard Haven, Mass. (June 21 to 24); New Bedford, Mass. (June 28 to July 6); Boston (July 18 to 22), and Buzzards Bay, Mass. (July 26 to 27). The ship will also anchor off Provincetown, Mass., before returning to Mystic in August.

During the ship’s Boston stay it will dock next to the U.S.S. Constitution, which is the oldest commissioned Naval vessel afloat and the only known large vessel that is older than the Morgan and still active.

Last week, while docked in New London, the Morgan was filled with activity as Files and his crew of 15 professional mariners and 10 deck hands (consisting of Mystic Seaport staff members) made sure the vessel was seaworthy. The sound of electronic screwdrivers filled the air and crewmembers (wearing rock climbing harnesses) scaled the 110-foot-tall ship in order to adjust lines and make other preparations. (See photo by Erik Ofgang at right)

"To get a ship like this ready takes a lot of effort. The crew has been working pretty hard, it’s been pretty intense,” Files says. 

Crews have been preparing the ship’s intricate rigging (there’s thousands of feet of rope that has to be arranged with precision) and hanging the sails. In addition, once the ship arrived in New London, ballast had to be added to sink the vessel down to its proper sailing depth.

"You can’t just take a ship and have it sit on top of the water, it needs to be sunk down into the water,” Files explains. “The deeper you get it, the more stable it is, so that takes a lot of weight.”

In the 1800s whalemen would steady a vessel like the Morgan with stone ballast. The ship would be fully loaded with stone at the start of the voyage, as the voyage went on and the crew collected barrels of whale oil they would throw stones overboard to keep the ship’s weight as close to constant as possible.

“A lot of the cobblestone streets in places like New Bedford, and so forth, were ballast stone from ships like this,” Files says.

In the relatively shallow waters of the Mystic River, the Morgan was loaded with just over 50 tons of ballast, which brought it down to about 12 feet. Since arriving in New London about 45 tons of ballast have been added bringing the vessel's total weight up to about 100 tons and lowering it about 13 and a half feet into the water, which is its proper sailing depth.


In 2008 the Morgan was pulled out of the water to undergo restoration in the museum’s shipyard and was launched back into the water last summer after a multiyear, multimillion-dollar renovation.

Dana Hewson, vice president of watercraft and preservation programs at Mystic Seaport, says finding the material necessary was one of the biggest challenges of the Morgan's restoration. The proper type of timber can be hard to find in the right size and there were other materials the Morgan needed that are no longer manufactured.

Because Mystic Seaport has a working historic shipyard, Hewson says the museum is constantly looking for these types of materials and has contacts all over the country. “A lot of our acquisition is based on long term relationships with people who know what we’re looking for and keep an eye out for that type of material," he says.

The Morgan restoration utilized timber gathered in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and other storms, wrought iron from an early 1900s tiger cage at a Memphis Zoo, and wood discovered when a new hospital was built on the grounds of what was the Boston Navy Yard.

For its voyage the ship had to meet U.S. Coast Guard standards. Modern navigation systems were added, as were modern bathrooms, a fire alarm system, a generator, and modern bilge pumps.

For Hewson and other museum staff members all the work paid off when they watched the vessel leave Mystic Seaport.

“I’ve been working here for 37 years,” Hewson says. “Its probably safe to say that there hasn’t been a day in my life since then, that the Morgan hasn’t’ been on my mind. To see her for the first time going through the bridge, it was a very moving experience.”

Dan McFadden, Mystic Seaport’s director of communications, adds, "Taking her down the river was fantastic. It brought home that this voyage is really happening.”

* *  *

As the next leg of the journey gets underway, Captain Files' priority is the safety of the crew.

“Back in 1841 it was the cargo, the vessel, then the crew, but now it’s a little bit different, we’ve changed that attitude on how we treat crew,” he says. “Safety is always number one, we’re going to limit ourselves to the types of weather we go out in.”

He adds that the Morgan is a sturdy ship and has certainly handled a storm or two, but there’s no point in taking any risks. “Nobody’s in it for the terror. We’ll handle it and find out how much wind feels comfortable with her and how much sea feels comfortable with her. This is such a precious artifact, there’s nothing else like it left in the world, so we have to treat it with that respect.”

Beyond keeping the crew and ship safe, Files says one of the hardest parts of the voyage will be keeping a wind-powered vessel on a schedule, which is why extra days have been allotted between the Morgan’s visit to each port.

“Sailing vessels never kept a schedule, they just go when the wind and the tide was fair and got there when the wind and the tide allowed them to. The advent of a time schedule, I think that started with the railroads,” he says.  

Contact me by email eofgang@connecticutmag.com and follow me on Twitter, and connect with Connecticut Magazine on Twitter, on Facebook and Google +


Whaling Ship Charles W. Morgan Arrives in Rhode Island; Historic Voyage’s First Leg

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