Sailing Aboard the Charles W. Morgan Offers Lessons in Silence and Renewal
How many meanings can one vessel hold? If that vessel is the last remaining wooden whaling ship in existence, the answer is, more than first meets the eye. From the end of MacMillan wharf, a half-mile beyond the harbor breakwater, the Morgan appeared as an apparition, a vision from the a previous century: Because of insufficient water depth in the harbor, she was not able to tie up at the wharf, so that for most people the ship could only be seen from a distance, a symbol of the unreachableness of the past
Once aboard, however, I was struck by the sheer physicality of it. The core crew of 20 men and women, from twenty-somethings to grizzled veterans, worked in concert, loudly repeating the first mate’s orders, hauling lines to rhythmic shouts , bracing sails clambering up the Jacob’s ladders into the sky-scraping rigging, , reenacting centuries-old rituals to achieve the incredibly complex, magnificently-engineered process of putting a square-rigged ship under sail. And what a day it was for a sail! A perfect day with southwest winds of 15-20 knots, producing scattered whitecaps over a running sea. The ship has 19 different sails, but all it needed on that day was two sets of the great split topsails on the mainmast and foremast, and several smaller jibs and spankers. As the sails were unfurled, stretched and then billowed by the wind, it was like watching a set of cumulus cloud formations suddenly materialize over our heads.
What surprised me most, once we were under sail, was the smoothness and silence of the ride. I expected the old ship to creak and snap with all the noise of its wooden age. Instead, from the deck, the vessel was absolutely quiet. When I remarked on this to one of the crew, he said, “Yes, she’s pretty tight ship.
The ship is historically “pure,” mostly. There’s no auxiliary motor to power her, and traditional materials have been used throughout in her restoration. There are some concessions to contemporary safety and comfort: three modern heads, an electronic communications center below decks, a few ceiling lights under the deck to supplement the green-glass prisms inlaid into the decks, safety harnesses worn by the crew when they went aloft, inflatable life-boats and life jackets, and walkie-talkies among the captain and the mates to stay in constant communications. But once under sail she is primarily a creature of wood, cotton, hemp, iron, copper, and wind.
“That’s the thing about ships,” one staff member told me. “They’re continually rotting and splitting and breaking and need to be replaced.” She said that only about 18% of the Morgan is original. And I thought, Just like us. Every seven years all of the cells in our bodies are replaced. We are all, ships and humans alike, ongoing replicas of ourselves, vessels worn degraded by the winds and currents of life, needing constant repair and replacement, with memory the only tether to our past.