Mary K. Bercaw Edwards: All Astir

Leviathan. A Journal of Melville Studies

Volume 16.3 (2014)

As I write, the 1841 whaleship Charles W. Morgan has just completed her historic 38th voyage. Almost 65,000 people visited the ship during her six port calls (see Fig. 1). Within the museum world, we regularly debate what constitutes the best use of an artifact: should it be stored away, unseen but preserved, or should it be kept out for viewing or even touching by the public? Mystic Seaport has long argued that conducting demonstrations such as setting sails, raising the anchor, lowering boats, and even cooking on the ships’ coal stoves keeps the Museum’s ships alive and preserves skills that otherwise might be lost. When the idea to take the Morgan, the only remaining nineteenth-century wooden whaleship, to sea first arose, there were arguments on both sides. However, the amount of preservation needed to keep the Morgan afloat at her berth was not significantly less than the amount needed to send her to sea, so the decision was made for the latter.

We have learned so much since the Morgan went to sea. The first and most surprising insight is discovering how swift and nimble she is. The Morgan is a typical whaleship, built like hundreds of others—including the Acushnet, the whaleship whose crew Melville joined in the winter of 1841—in the greater New Bedford area. The old adage that whaleships were built by the mile and cut off by the foot suggests that there was little shape to their hulls and hence little speed and maneuverability. Out of the water, the Morgan definitely looked tubby and her rudder inadequate. Our first inkling that she might belie this impression came when she towed so beautifully down the Mystic River on May 17. During her first sea trial, out of New London on June 7, she sailed fast (7–1/2 knots on a 15-knot breeze!) and tacked like a dream. Since that first sea trial, her agility has proven to be superb in numerous situations.

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