Rob Burbank: Local man sails on the world’s last remaining wooden whaling ship

The Conway Daily Sun

Published: Friday, 19 September 2014 04:50

By Rob Burbank

Editor’s note: Writer Rob Burbank has lived in Mount Washington Valley for the past three decades, having relocated from the shores of Buzzards Bay. Rob was fortunate to get a good whiff of salt air this past summer when he was chosen to sail aboard the historic whaleship, Charles W. Morgan. It turns out he has a family connection to the ship, which is now a National Historic Landmark.

My great-uncle Jesse didn’t talk often of his time as a crew member aboard one of New England’s last whaling ships to go to sea, but in 1981, I did have a conversation with him about life as a seaman on the whaleship, Charles W. Morgan.

Jacinto “Jesse” Costa was 79 then, some 63 years after, as a 16-year-old, he jumped aboard the Morgan at the New Bedford, Mass., docks and spent the next 13 1/2 months sailing down to the coast of South America and back in search of whales and the oil for which they were valued.

He recalled climbing the rigging to tend to sails, standing watch, the messy work of turning blubber into whale oil, and rowing in the second mate’s boat when whales were sighted and they put to chase. He also told of being thrown from the boat when a breaching whale chomped it in its jaws.

His was the 35th voyage of the Morgan, from July 16, 1918 to Sept. 7, 1919, a relatively short trip, compared to the three- or four-year voyages that were common in the mid-19th century.

This past June, I had the great fortune to climb aboard the Morgan for an even shorter stint — 24 hours — as one of a group of “38th Voyagers” chosen to experience the nation’s oldest wooden merchant ship and the world’s last remaining wooden whaling ship, under sail.

My fellow sailors included writers and researchers, artists and historians, and others with a fascination with the sea and seafaring. Our leg of the summer’s itinerary took us from Martha’s Vineyard to New Bedford, Mass., the city where the Morgan was built and launched in 1841, and the port from which my great-uncle shipped out in 1918.

This past summer, for the first time since being towed from New Bedford to Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Conn., in 1941 to serve as a museum exhibit there, the Charles W. Morgan, left port and sailed to several New England seaside destinations.

The past 5 1/2 years have seen a major restoration of the historic ship, and this summer’s New England sailing itinerary was ambitious, even audacious — and a huge success. The 173-year-old ship performed amazingly, thanks to Mystic Seaport’s expert restoration and the unfailing skill of Captain Kip Files and his dedicated crew.

While she stayed close to shore on her New England journey, her travels over the past century and a half took her to locations around the world in search of whales.

While I didn’t anticipate the sort of raw adventure my great-uncle experienced as his boat was crushed beneath him and he was tossed to the waves, I did want to compare my time aboard in 2014 with his, nearly 100 years earlier. Some aspects were significantly different. Others offered what I imagine to be no changes at all.

What was different

• Modern navigational systems. Helmsmen on today’s Morgan still sailed by compass, as tradition dictates, but up-to-date electronics were installed prior to the 38th Voyage to provide an added level of certainty and safety to help sailors navigate the waters and shoals of the New England coast.

• Life safety. Installation of modern fire suppression systems (piping, hoses, etc.) was part of a 5 1/2-year restoration of the Morgan, a modern-day requirement for her to embark on her 38th Voyage. In the whaling days, crews boiled whale blubber in hot-tub-sized iron pots over roaring fires to render the oil they would barrel and bring home. Conflagrations happened on some ships, but they were rare.

• Sanitation. Three flush toilets were installed below deck prior to this summer’s sailing, all the better to accommodate the needs of this summer’s crew, Voyagers, and passengers.

• Cargo. The early whalers pursued whales — preferably sperm whales — for their oil, which was rendered in deck-mounted try pots and provided a source of light and lubrication for homes, cities and industry. In later years, baleen — essentially food filters made of keratin in the mouths of non-toothed whales — was also sought after. Its stiff yet pliable qualities were coveted for making corset stays. Uncle Jesse noted that his voyage gathered whale oil only, no baleen or whalebone, a fact that is borne out in shipping records. But there were no barrels of whale oil in the ship’s cavernous hold on this summer’s voyage. Indeed, whales today are more valuable as living creatures to be observed and appreciated, and day sails to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary found 38th Voyagers reveling in the heady experience of viewing breaching whales from the deck of the Morgan, a vessel originally designed to hunt and process these huge animals. As noted on the Mystic Seaport Museum website,, “This voyage, her 38th, may perhaps be her most important. Where once the Morgan’s cargo was whale oil and baleen, today her cargo is knowledge.”

What was the same

Despite the modern alterations necessary for the Morgan’s 38th voyage, the essence of the sail — the wind-in-your-face, salt-spray-in-your-hair type of experience — and the sense that we were truly exploring, doing something that hadn’t been done in generations, washed over me as we cut through the waves on the way to the ship’s birthplace of New Bedford. Whether in 1841 or 2014, I imagine the following details to be the same, no matter the century:

• Grace. The grace with which the Morgan sailed, under the learned command of Captain Files and the able seamanship of the crew, was an unexpectedly beautiful sight to behold so many years after her creation and so many years since she last sailed. With sails full, she cut through the water smoothly and sturdily, as she had been designed to do nearly a century and three-quarters ago.

• Power. As her sails billowed and her hull met the waters of Buzzards Bay for the first time in more than 70 years, the power of this historic vessel was palpable. And much of that power had been converted from the energy of the ship’s crew, who expertly yanked and tugged and hauled on lines at the appropriate times to influence the movement of the ship. That the voyage happened at all was extremely unlikely: No one alive had sailed a wooden whaling ship. Yet, Mystic Seaport put together a crackerjack captain and crew that exhibited alertness, adroitness, and infinite skill. As I watched the crew climb the rigging to wrangle sails I imagined my great-uncle nearly a century ago clambering over the same ratlines and yardarms.

• Wind and water and wood. The weft and warp of the sails (fashioned specifically for the Morgan restoration of sturdy Irish cotton), the meeting of wood and water, and the ways of the wind all combined to move the Morgan through the waves. After spending the night on board ship, we spent the next day sailing. Leaving the Vineyard under overcast skies, we sailed on toward the Elizabeth Islands, passing through Quicks Hole and on into Buzzards Bay. During parts of the transit, tug boats aided the ship, but for a good part of the journey, the Morgan was powered by the wind, and she took to it gracefully. Excitement was high. This was, after all, a homecoming for the storied ship. Arriving in New Bedford Harbor, it was as though the centuries converged as the Morgan returned to the port of her birth.

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