During her 80-year whaling career, which included 37 globe-girdling voyages, the Charles W. Morgan never visited Vineyard Haven. Built in New Bedford in 1841 and now preserved, reconstructed in authentic detail, and relaunched by the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, the Morgan, Captain Kip Files, arrived at the Tisbury Wharf Company’s dock at Vineyard Haven on Martha’s Vineyard Wednesday, after a splendid day’s sail from Newport.
Vineyard Haven is one of several stops along a promotional route that will have her visit such New England ports as New London, Newport, New Bedford, Boston, Provincetown, and cruise over the right whale sanctuary at Stellwagen Bank.
After a longish tow from her Ft. Adams dock, at the end of a hauser from Ralph Packer tug Sirius, Captain Paul Bangs, Morgan dropped the towline and added sails as she approached Gay Head. Robert McNeil’s Cangarda, a restored 19th century steam yacht, joined a growing flotilla of small craft, sail and power, trailing the Morgan, delighted and astonished at this visitor from two centuries ago. Bailey Norton of Edgartown was aboard Cangarda. He is a descendant of Thomas Norton, captain of the Morgan on her first whaling voyage.
Rounding West Chop, Captain Files chose to take a hitch into Vineyard Haven Harbor, before turning around clew up his sales and take Sirius alongside to move her to her mooring at the Tisbury Wharf Company, which has been dredged and deepened especially to make a comfortable berth for the whaleship, which draws as much as 17 feet.
The cluster of smaller craft, some of which had trailed Morgan from Rhode Island Sound, but also including Vineyard Haven craft, including the schooners Charlotte, Malabar, Perception, Alabama, and Ishmael (never seeming so brilliantly named) followed her. Crowds watched her progress east in Vineyard Sound at West Chop, and Islanders gathered at Coastwise Wharf and Tisbury Wharf, and anywhere else that served as a vantage point, to welcome Morgan in her 21st century incarnation.
Morgan is a barque, which means three masts, with square sails on the foremast and the main and fore and aft sails on the mizzen. She was launched originally as a ship, which means square sails on every mast. Today, in addition to two jibs and a staysail, plus mizzen and mizzen topsail, she carries a course foresail, with two topsails and a topgallant sail above. On the main, there is the course, two topsails, the topgallant and a royal at the very apex of the rig. By contrast, Shenandoah, Vineyard Haven’s square-rigged centerpiece since 1964, carries two square sails on her foremast, a topsail and a topgallant. She’s known as a topsail schooner.
Nantucket was a prosperous, world-famous whaling hub. New Bedford became the world capital of the whaling industry and the richest city in North America in the 19th century.
The Vineyard, apart from shore whaling by Wampanoag Indians, lived on farming, shore fishing, and coastwise schooners passing north and south through Nantucket and Vineyard sounds. Its contributions to the 19th century heyday of American whaling were crewmen — Azorean sailors, Gay Head (Wampanoag) Indian harpooners, and Vineyard sailors, mates and captains. The Morgan’s visit memorializes their vital places in her celebrated commercial history.
The Vineyard and Gay Headers were represented Wednesday by Elizabeth James-Perry, a Wampanoag descendent for whom the trip was a spiritual recapture of sorts, and Matthew Stackpole of West Tisbury, a professional fundraiser for Mystic, who has helped raise millions of dollars for Morgan’s reconstruction. Another Vineyarder, the craftsman, boatbuilder, and artist Frank Raposa, who is among his many talents an expert caulker, joined the Morgan construction team in Mystic when it came time to caulk Morgan. And, Gannon & Benjamin, the Vineyard Haven boatbuilders, constructed one of Morgan’s whaleboats, hanging in davits today.
Morgan’s maiden voyage, 35 in her crew, took her back and forth across the Atlantic, around Cape Horn to the Arctic and back again around Cape Horn, to her New Bedford home port, three and a third years in all. The captain was Thomas Norton. He and many of the crew were Vineyarders. Fortunate and profitable throughout her career — despite howling storms, Arctic ice, hostile natives where Morgan stopped for water and provisions, attacks by Confederate raiders — Morgan, an early factory ship, came home with a variety of products in demand worldwide and especially sperm oil, the premium lubricant and fuel for lanterns and machines until petroleum was discovered and refined. As many as six of Morgan’s 21 captains during her whaling career were Vineyarders and many of her skilled crew, harpooners and boatsteers were Gay Headers. Morgan was a profitable business that enriched her owners and investors, and created livelihoods for captains and crewmen.
Morgan, a National Historic Landmark, the oldest operating American commercial vessel still afloat, and the last wooden whaleship remaining in the world, was decommissioned in 1941 and became a Mystic Seaport exhibit. Today, she did what she knows how to do very well – sailing fast, handling well, getting where she was going efficiently and with an easy motion that her passengers, most of them at least, found comfortable.