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History Sails into Vineyard Haven

Vineyard Haven harbor resounded with cheers, ship horns and cannon blasts as well-wishers turned out to greet the Charles W. Morgan when it arrived in Martha’s Vineyard from Newport, Rhode Island. The 173-year old vessel is America’s last surviving whale ship. It’s based at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, and recently underwent a 5-1/2 year restoration there. The Morgan is traveling around New England this summer on its 38th Voyage, stopping at ports where it has strong ties. This is the first time the Morgan has sailed since its last whaling voyage in 1921. 

As the Morgan departed Newport, Rhode Island, a tugboat towed the vessel out past the massive walls of Fort Adams at the entrance to Newport Harbor, and then into Rhode Island Sound for its journey to the Vineyard. On board was a crew of about 20, as well as 9 “Voyagers” – a playwright, a poet, authors, videographers and others who will interpret the trip through their unique artistic talents. A small group of Vineyard residents also were aboard for the passage. David Vietor lives in Edgartown.

“I think this is extraordinary, and, you know, we’re on a ship that is not much different in design from the packet ships that established American supremacy on the North Atlantic,” Vietor said. “So we’re on an emblem here of American enterprise at one of its great periods during the 19th century. It’s a living artifact. I mean, you talk about interactive exhibits. How more interactive can you get than this?”

“And listen to the communication among the crew,” Vietor continued. “I mean, these are commands that were given for 100 years. And it’s slowly disappeared from our vocabulary. Braces and mainyards, and so forth and so on.”

The Captain of the Morgan for the 38th Voyage is Kip Files of Maine.

“The last of a breed, and she’s made it this far,” said Files. “Someone that fought in our War of Independence could have seen this vessel sail…could have seen this vessel launched…wasn’t that many years afterwards. Someone who fought in the War of 1812 could have helped build it. Someone who was in the Civil War no doubt sailed on it. I mean, you think of that connection.”

The crew was almost never idle – climbing the rigging, rushing around the deck in response to commands, and pulling on lines like a tug of war team to raise the sails.

Matthew Stackpole is Ship Historian for the Morgan restoration.

“The hoisting is a one-time deal, although you would change sails depending on the weather,” he said. “So you might set all your sails, and then the weather deteriorated, you’d have to take sails down. And that would require people to go aloft and to furl the sails.”

Although the Morgan never sailed to the Vineyard, Stackpole said it nonetheless has a strong local connection.

“The Vineyard never had the number of whale ships that first Nantucket had, and then New Bedford, but it had many sailors who went to sea, and they were the crews on these ships,” said Stackpole. “So the first voyage of this ship, 17 of the crew, including the Captain, were from Martha’s Vineyard of the 30 or so that were on board.”

Midway through the trip, the Morgan entered Vineyard Sound. The wind shifted, and the sea became calmer. The tugboat dropped its line and pulled away, leaving the Charles W. Morgan to travel under full sail, as it had done for 80 years.

“Now you hear the wind and the waves against the hull, and no engine noise, and you hear people talking. And the only real noise you hear is the orders of the crew as they handle the ship. But that sound of the wind and the waves against the hull,” said Stackpole.

Eventually, the tugboat returned to tow the ship on the final leg of the trip into Vineyard Haven harbor. As the Morgan approached, boats of all types and sizes came out to greet it – passing motorboats, large, sleek yachts, and sailboats crammed with passengers snapping photos and calling out greetings. And things only got more boisterous as the Morgan entered the harbor, with a din of ship horns, cannon blasts and cheering crowds.

The tugboat carefully guided the old ship toward the end of Tisbury Wharf Company’s pier, and the crew set about lowering sails and securing lines. And with that, the Charles W. Morgan was finally secure at its berth in Vineyard Haven.

The Morgan is set to continue her 38th Voyage across New England on June 25th, when it will depart for New Bedford.

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