I NEVER go to Provincetown in the summer. In 56 years the thought of driving a distance equivalent to a trip to Boston, down perilous two-lanes of distracting tourist drivers to visit the clogged streets of the zoo that is P-Town has never even crossed my mind. But yesterday, in lieu of beating over to Martha’s Vineyard in southwesterly breezes gusting to 30 knots, I easily agreed with the suggestion we show my daughter’s boyfriend the “real Cape” and head to the outermost tip of the peninsula. As we walked down from the parking lot behind the high school at the Pilgrim Monument I looked out over the harbor for the masts of the Charles W. Morgan, the oldest floating commercial vessel in the United States, the last of the wooden whaling ships, recently restored at Mystic Seaport and now on its 38th voyage, the first time it has sailed in decades.
“I knew there was a reason he agreed to do this,” said my wife, long ago having resigned herself to a lonely marriage of antisocial, agoraphobic behavior by me, the man-who-does-not-dance. There were masts abounding, but none of a New Bedford whaling ship. I had followed the progress of the Morgan from Mystic up to Buzzards Bay and then through the Cape Cod Canal, and knew she would be in Provincetown. I’ve been aboard the ship a few times in the past at Mystic Seaport, where she has been the main attraction since 1941, but always assumed she was just an exhibit, too fragile to risk the sea.
The six of us walked to the end of the town pier, bustling with little shops, visitors arriving from Boston on the fast ferry, charter captains hosing off their decks and getting ready for their next set of sports. At the very end of the quay was a replica of a merchantman from the 1700s — a Mayflowerish sort of thing — and a not very pretty schooner, but no Morgan. A big inflated sperm whale was tethered down, nose into the southwest wind pushing white caps out in the bay into the Wellfleet and Truro shores.
“There’s a ship,” my daughter said. Out of the harbor, on the other side of the little flat-sided lighthouse at the tip of Long Point, were the masts of a bark-rigged ship slowly sailing in from Cape Cod Bay.
It was the Morgan, returning from a day sail out to Stellwagen Bank, a fertile marine sanctuary a few miles north of Race Point where right whales and finbacks cavort all summer. The ship was in port for some sort of whale awareness event, and around the inflated whale on the pier stood an helpful young woman answering questions about the state of the whale preservation movement. The exhibit had a sense of apology about it, that yes, this was a magnificent ship that embodied a rich part of America’s maritime past, but all those whales the Morgan helped slaughter were, well…..in the past when people didn’t know any better and petroleum hadn’t been discovered yet.
The ship rounded Long Point and tacked around into the wind to pick up a mooring a half mile off the end of the pier. She was not coming dockside. I was a little disappointed, the sight of an actual whaler riding at anchor was such an anachronism I turned to my son and said, “Imagine hiding in the bushes in Samoa in 1850 and seeing that arrive and drop anchor.”
“With a crew of syphilitic, dregs-of-New-England sailors,” he cracked wisely. The rest of my entourage was profoundly bored by the fact that a piece of American history was riding at its anchor in front of them in the same harbor where the Mayflower arrived in the late fall of 1620. They headed back to the insanity of Commercial Street where a man in an orange skirt and orange cat-in-the-hat hat was riding bicycle hawking tickets to an appearance by Baltimore’s pencil-moustached auteur and director of Pink Flamingos, John Waters. My son and I sat on edge of the pier, legs dangling down, and appreciated the view. Being a pedantic bore, I started the history lesson of the Morgan.
She was built in New Bedford in 1841, at the height of the American whaling fishery, a time when Nantucket and New Bedford whaling ships were exploring every corner of the Pacific from New Zealand to the Arctic, from Baja to the Okhotsk Sea of Siberia. This was the world of Herman Melville which he captured in the two books that made him a best selling author — Oomoo and Typee — an account of his voyage to the South Pacific and desertion with another sailor to live among the Polynesians. This was a time when New England whalers were the most well-traveled people in the world. Pushing into uncharted waters — literally — at huge risk and discomfort to fill their holds with whale oil, bone and baleen.
The ships were slow. Built big and heavy to hold a lot of barrels of oil, a crew of 35 men, and the brick fireplace — or “try works” — that sat amidships where the big blankets of whale blubber were cut into chunks and rendered over the flames into big iron kettles into oil like big blobs of fishy Crisco. The decks were soaked in oil: slippery, rancid, foul and treacherous. Only the Captain and the officers got rich. They worked for the ship owners — the Coffins of Nantucket or the Howlands of New Bedford — and received a share, or fraction of the profits. The crews were drunks and petty thieves, sea sick farm boys, Wampanoags and Pequots trying to work off debts, escaped slaves, Irish immigrants, veterans of the War of 1812. The only things that kept them in line were the fists of the officers and their ignorance of celestial navigation. Oh there were mutinies, but for most whaling voyages — generally lasting three years — the biggest risk was falling overboard, being killed by an angry whale, or merely suffering an accident on deck in a pre-OSHA era.
The Morgan was of a classic type of ship; a couple thousand were built in Mattapoisett and New Bedford. This is the type of ship the Pequod — Captain Ahab’s ship in Moby Dick — was. Melville wrote in the novel, published in 1851 — ten years after the launching of the Morgan:
“… a rare old craft…She was a ship of the old school, rather small if anything; with an old fashioned claw-footed look about her. Long seasoned and weather-stained in the typhoons and calms of all four oceans, her old hull‘s complexion was darkened like a French grenadier‘s, who has alike fought in Egypt and Siberia. Her venerable bows looked bearded. Her masts…stood stiffly up like the spines of the three old kings of Cologne. Her ancient decks were worn and wrinkled, like the pilgrim-worshipped flag-stone in Canterbury Cathedral where Beckett bled. But to all these her old antiquities, were added new and marvellous features, pertaining to the wild business that for more than half a century she had followed…She was apparelled like any barbaric Ethiopian emperor, his neck heavy with pendants of polished ivory. She was a thing of trophies. A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies. All round, her unpanelled, open bulwarks were garnished like one continuous jaw, with the long sharp teeth of the Sperm Whale, inserted there for pins, to fasten her old hempen thews and tendons to. Those thews ran not through base blocks of land wood, but deftly travelled over sheaves of sea-ivory. Scorning a turnstile wheel at her reverend helm, she sported there a tiller; and that tiller was in one mass, curiously carved from the long narrow lower jaw of her hereditary foe…A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that.”
The Morgan escaped the fate of most whaling ships. A lot were lost at sea, sunk by storms, wrecked on uncharted reefs, driven onto lee-shores, unable to beat their way to the open sea. One, the Essex, was rammed and sunk by a pissed-off whale. A bunch were lost in the arctic, done in by greedy crews who overstayed their welcome and were frozen into the pack ice. The Civil War took its toll when the “Great Stone Fleet” — about 40 whaling ships — were filled with rocks and scuttled by the Union Navy in an attempt to blockade Charleston, South Carolina. The end of the age of sail and the rise of steam did in the rest, but somehow the Morgan escaped the wrecker and even found a second career in the early silent movie era as a prop in three movies. She was rotting in New Bedford harbor in 1924 when a steamer caught fire and nearly destroyed her in the process. The fire — which was extinguished by the firemen of Fairhaven — raised awareness that the Morgan should be preserved, and eventually the one-legged Colonel Edward Howland Robinson Green, son of the notorious “witch of Wall Street,” Hetty Green, was persuaded to pay to have her restored and towed to his seaside mansion in Dartmouth, Mass. where she was pulled into the mud and put on display.
Green, who lost his leg in childhood when his miserly mother refused to pay a doctor to set a broken bone, was the heir to the great Howland whaling fortune and kept the Morgan in decent shape until his death in 1934. Four years later the Great Hurricane of 1938 demolished New Bedford and the Morgan was damaged.
In 1941 she was dug out of her mud and sand berth, towed back into New Bedford harbor, patched up, and eventually towed to Mystic, Connecticut to become the nucleus for Mystic Seaport, an amazing maritime museum (where I spent many month in the late 1970s while majoring in American maritime history at Yale).
She was patched up and put into another muddy berth, and over the years millions of visitors explored her decks and learned about the amazing history of whaling. But she never sailed again.
Occasionally they’d unfurl her big sails at the dock — sometimes one could see them luffing uselessly as they sped by in a car on Route 95 — but she was basically beached. I never expected the Morgan to sail again. A few years ago, at the Coastweeks rowing regatta, my son and I explored the Seaport after my race. It was his first visit and we had a lot of fun exploring the exhibits, the old rope walk, the sheds of catboats and sharpies, skipjacks and pinkys. The Morgan was in dry dock to be rebuilt from the keel up. We were able to go aboard even though work was being done, and poked around the decks, me droning on about his great-great-great-grandfather Thomas Chatfield’s ship, the Massachusetts, and speculating what life must have been like for a Cotuit man in his early 20s to be given command of a 100-foot long ship and sail it from Edgartown to Siberia and back. And then do it four more times before the outbreak of the Civil War.
So yes, there’s an ancestral connection to these ships. A reminder that somewhere in my DNA is the stuff that made a man run away from home, go to sea, and live a life killing huge beasts in strange oceans on a floating fireplace.
The fact I actually saw one of those ships under sail yesterday — not being ceremoniously towed around like the USS Constitution is every summer (the Constitution is the oldest floating American ship, the Morgan the oldest commercial one) but actually sailing– was very emotional and more than worth the long drive from Cotuit to see. I’d give a lot to experience such a thing. A few years ago I organized an expedition of a couple dozen friends down to Newport to sail a pair of America’s Cup 12-meters, and those five minutes I spent at the big wheel made me smile all over.
The Morgan heads to Boston, then back through the Canal. She’ll be n display at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy on July 26 and 27.