Voyaging

Lesley Walker's Blog

Training ship, Joseph Conrad

Training ship, Joseph Conrad

I hung just below the futtock shrouds considering my options. With two feet balanced on the ratlines and both hands firmly grasping the shrouds, I looked down at the deck of the Joseph Conrad far below. Could I trust my arms and shoulders to haul me up onto the platform at the first cross tree? I had successfully climbed this far, remembering to keep “three points in contact with the rigging at all times”. For once I decided to err on the side of caution, remembering the time I had gone overboard and had to pull my bodyweight plus sodden clothes back onto the yacht Keepsake. Not easily.

I savoured the moment hanging there in the air. Despite the damp, somewhat dismal weather, the ship was stationary, alongside the dock in calm waters. Imagine how it was for the crew in the Pacific swaying in the rigging, working the sails in winds and all weather! Reluctantly I slowly descended to the deck.

Almost there! P1070387

The iron-hulled training ship Joseph Conrad, 111 ft long, 25 ft beam and 12 ft draft, was built as the Georg Stage in 1882 in Copenhagen and given to Mystic Seaport by President Truman in 1947. There is another Australian connection here, as in 1934 Alan Villiers, an Australian sailor and writer, bought her and renamed her the Joseph Conrad. Coincidentally, for some months in 1995 I lived in a house in Summertown, Oxford which had belonged to Alan Villiers; his widow was our landlady!

Climbing the rigging of the Joseph Conrad and taking an oar in a whaleboat were optional parts of the training day at Mystic Seaport on 29 April with many of us keen to take part.

The whaleboats at Mystic Seaport are long and elegant, double-ended like Keepsake and about the same length, 28 feet. They carry 5 pulling oars, 15-18 feet long, 3 on the starboard side (right), 2 on the port side (left). They are light, open, graceful boats built for speed and manoeuvrability, pulled by oars and also sailed. Directed by the boat steerer Mary Kay in the stern, five of us took our places and grasped the ends of long heavy oars. I was Oar No. 1 closest to the bow. We were shown the strokes and told the commands: “pull together”, “push together” or “stern all”, “avast”, “hold water”, “rest oars” and “out oars”. So much to remember! There was some mention of “catching crabs” which seemed to be a hazard to avoid. The port rower in front of me fell victim to the “crabs” first and then I experienced exactly what that meant. My oar blade caught in the water and tried to pull me backwards off the seat. To recover, you need to push down on the handle of the oar quickly and firmly so the blade comes out of the water. Fortunately that was instinctive! After a lot of awkwardness and being out of stroke, the moment came when suddenly we were pulling together and moving through the water as one. It was magic!

Mary Kay trying to get a motley whaleboat crew into shape!

Mary Kay trying to get a motley whaleboat crew into shape!

Later, feeling my sore shoulders unaccustomed to rowing, I considered the experience. Imagine being an oarsman in a whaleboat attached by a long line to a very angry whale in the middle of a vast ocean. As Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick, “ a stove boat will make me immortal … there is death in this business of whaling”. But for Tom Bell and his family on Sunday (Raoul) Island, the gift of such a whaleboat by Captain Brightman of the New Bedford whaleship California in 1880s was “the one thing we need more than anything else”.

Whaleboats at Mystic Seaport

Whaleboats at Mystic Seaport

Next – Whaling logbooks as windows to the past

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Ancestral Voyaging

The shiplift was installed in 2007 and used to lift the whaleship, carefully cradled in blocks and braces, out of the water. A computer controls the lift, monitors and distributes loads and protects the vessel from damage. A horizontal track system moves the vessel ashore and a concrete platform under the rails collects all waste from the work on the ship. This protects the Mystic River's water quality and marine habitat.

The Charles W Morgan alongside the shoplift dock. The shiplift was installed in 2007 and used to lift the whaleship, carefully cradled in blocks and braces, out of the water. A computer controls the lift, monitors and distributes loads and protects the vessel from damage. A horizontal track system moves the vessel ashore and a concrete platform under the rails collects all waste from the work on the ship. This protects the Mystic River’s water quality and marine habitat.

Mystic Seaport, the Charles W Morgan and me

Last week in Connecticut, USA, I climbed aboard the Charles W Morgan for the first time. With the sailing date of 17 May 2014 fast approaching, riggers and shipwrights, painters and crew, electricians and carpenters, plumbers and deckhands were swarming about the ship in a frenzy of activity, patiently side stepping the curious and fascinated public who came to marvel and to question. I sat for a while at the captain and mates’ table beside the cabin which George Parkins Christian had occupied for 20 years, reflecting and writing, then exploring the crew cabins, the blubber room, the between decks areas, the fo’c’s’le.

First Mate's Cabin

First Mate’s Cabin

Responding to the 45mph winds outside, I felt the ship move heavily at the dock, almost as if sensing her imminent freedom. I heard the constant creaking of the hull and the sound of the wind singing through the rigging. I talked to Tim, a crew member painting thick tar on the dead eyes and rigging and Paul, a shipwright busy with woodwork below. Their excitement and passion for the project was infectious. Behind the roped off area, Paul showed me the gimballed and carved captain’s bed made for Lydia Landers when she joined her husband in 1863, the first of five captains’ wives who sailed on the Charles W Morgan. Quite comfy!

Working on the rigging of the Charles W Morgan, in the background the H.B. du Pont Preservation Shipyard. This also includes a wonderful exhibition on the restoration process.

Working on the rigging of the Charles W Morgan, in the background the H.B. du Pont Preservation Shipyard. This also includes a wonderful exhibition on the restoration process.

Preparing the rigging

Preparing the rigging

Why was I in Mystic Seaport? I am lucky enough to be one of two people from the UK chosen to be part of the group of 79 38th Voyagers. Each of us has a project – art, writing, education, film, scientific or historic research, textiles, photography, literature, poetry, music, journalism, oceanography, conservation – and the 38th Voyage will allow us the opportunity to experience, explore and create, producing a lasting legacy from the project and for the museum at Mystic Seaport.

This is the first of the blog posts tracking progress of what I call my Pacific Islands project. It is also my Charles W Morgan project, developing in parallel from the moment I was accepted as a voyager on the 1841 whaleship’s historic 38th voyage from Mystic Seaport to New Bedford and beyond between May and August 2014. I will be sleeping on board in the fo’c’s’le the night before we sail and travelling, hopefully sailing, from Vineyard Haven to New Bedford in late June.

The hull showing work progressing above the waterline, starboard side

The hull showing work progressing above the waterline, starboard side

To give you something of the flavour of why this is so exciting and important for me, let me say first of all that this is a ship my great-great grandparents knew and saw, possibly even went aboard, as it lay at anchor off their remote island home in the Kermadecs. At the very least they knew crew members, especially George Parkins Christian who had arrived some years earlier at Sunday Island on another New Bedford whaler, the California, before he signed on as mate on the Charles W Morgan in the mid-1890s. My great grandmother Bessie also knew the ship so this wonderful survivor is a direct link between them and the past and me and the present. Over the next few months I will be concentrating my research on the whale ships which visited Sunday Island and reading their logs where they survive, and focussing on members of the crew that were mentioned by name in my great-grandmother’s recorded memories. I will also be looking at the attitudes of my ancestors to whales and whaling and the natural world and the links between the whaling ships and Sunday, Pitcairn and Norfolk Islands. Mystic Seaport

Mystic Seaport – The Museum of America and the Sea

Secondly as a passionate heritage professional I will be exploring how Mystic Seaport has shaped the restoration and research project starting with a daring vision of what might be possible – sailing the last surviving wooden whaling ship once more – and engaging the public in realizing that vision.

Next – climbing the rigging and rowing the whaleboat!