If you are a lover of maritime history, you may want to rearrange your summer plans to fit in a trip to southern New England to catch a rare glimpse of a bygone era of working waterfront.
After a five-year renovation at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, the whaling ship Charles W. Morgan will sail to several ports in southern New England in July and August. The ship is considered the last New England whaling vessel, and the second oldest U.S. commercial ship still afloat, behind only the USS Constitution. This will be its final voyage, says Dan McFadden, Mystic Seaport’s director of communications.
“This is a one-time thing,” McFadden said. “We’re not planning on sailing this ship again.”
It is amazing that this 112-foot vessel is taking to the sea at all after spending decades docked and derelict first in New Bedford and then at Mystic Seaport. While the ship had been renovated four times above the waterline, it never once had been worked on below before this renovation.
The ship was built over a nine-month period in 1841, but it took five years to make it seaworthy once again. Part of the reason why the process took so long is because craftsmen had to relearn 19th century shipbuilding skills.
“There was nobody alive that we could call and ask,” McFadden said.
That’s part of the reason why the restoration was such an attractive project for Mystic Seaport, a living maritime museum that seeks to preserve shipbuilding and sailing skills from a bygone era. Once renovations greatly improved the seaworthiness of the Morgan, the prospect of sailing her as a living object lesson of maritime history proved too great to resist. Test sails of the ship have already given sailing historians invaluable lessons of what their predecessors did on the seas, McFadden said.
“We’re learning and we’ll be able to share that,” he said.
Maine has a deep connection with New England’s whaling history, but that doesn’t mean there were many whaling ships launched from the state’s coast, said Charles Burden, a founding trustee of the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath. There was some whaling activity in Wiscasset, Portland, Bucksport and Bath, but no one company found much success, he said.
“They just weren’t equipped for it,” he said. “They didn’t have people who were good sailors that knew about whaling.”
Instead, Maine boatbuilding supplied many of the factory-like ships that were used in whaling’s heyday. Whaling vessels were often recycled from shipping schooners built in Maine. Later, when steamship whaling became more popular, Bath shipyards built several ships for the industry, Burden said.
Barring bad weather, the Charles W. Morgan will be sailing until Aug. 9, at which point it will permanently dock at Mystic Seaport to serve as a floating museum. To view the full itinerary, go to http://www.mysticseaport.org/38thvoyage/.