Voyaging

Lesley Walker's Blog

Voyaging on the Charles W Morgan – the first part

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On starboard tack across Buzzard’s Bay. Courtesy Mystic Seaport Museum

The moment I felt the ship heel as her sails grabbed the wind was a moment of almost perfect happiness. I stood on the deck listening to the filling of the canvas, feeling the rhythm of the ship lifting and pulling as each sail held the wind and sensing the movement of the keel through the water. I wanted this journey to go on forever! The old language of sailing and ships – clews, outhauls, mizzen, foresail, topgallant, royal – bounced over the deck as the crew “danced” in time to the shouted orders flowing from captain to first mate to crew, echoed and repeated chorus-like as rigging was climbed, yards were raised and lowered, halyards hauled, sails unfurled, braced, backed … how to capture this moment and how I got here?

Geoff Kaufman and crew members. Courtesy Mystic Seaport Museum

My cohort of 38th Voyagers before we left Vineyard Haven. L to R: Back row - Rob Burbank, Revell Carr, Peter Gansevoort Whittemore, Matthew Bullard, Bob Wallace. Front row - Susan Funk, Exec. Vice-President, Mystic Seaport & our cohort co-ordinator, Lesley Walker, Mary Wayss, Vanessa Hodgkinson, Mike Dyer.

My cohort of 38th Voyagers before we left Vineyard Haven. L to R: Back row – Rob Burbank, Revell Carr, Peter Gansevoort Whittemore, Matthew Bullard, Bob Wallace. Front row – Susan Funk, Exec. Vice-President, Mystic Seaport & our cohort co-ordinator, Lesley Walker, Mary Wayss, Vanessa Hodgkinson, Mike Dyer. Courtesy Mystic Seaport Museum.

My cohort of 38th Voyagers had arrived one by one at the Vineyard Haven dock, most of us meeting for the first time and all nine sharing the excitement of the moment, the culmination of months of anticipation and preparation. We all had some connection – physical, familial, intellectual, emotional – with the ship lying serenely at the end of the wooden jetty: Vanessa Hodgkinson, a professional artist from London, exploring the little-known history of women who dressed as men in order to join the crews of whaling ships; Bob Wallace, a Melville scholar who has curated a variety of art exhibitions that respond to Melville’s work; Peter Gansevoort Whittemore, Herman Melville’s great-great-grandson clutching a copy of Moby Dick for all to sign and leave on board; Mike Dyer, whaling curator, librarian and maritime historian at the New Bedford Whaling Museum; Mary Wayss, an art teacher at Our Sisters’ School in New Bedford; Rob Burbank whose great-uncle Jacinto Costa was a seaman on the Charles W. Morgan’s 35th voyage in 1918; Matthew Bullard, the 4th great grandson of Charles W. Morgan, the first owner and her namesake; Revell Carr, an ethnomusicologist who as a boy had stood on her deck as she was floated down the river after her first major restoration in Mystic where, while in high school, he worked as an interpreter and demonstrator; and me!

Vanessa and me on the ferry from New Bedford to Oak's Bluff, Martha's Vineyard. Courtesy Bob Wallace.

Vanessa and me on the ferry from New Bedford to Oak’s Bluff, Martha’s Vineyard. Courtesy Bob Wallace.

Arriving at Oak's Bluff, Martha's Vineyard

Arriving at Oak’s Bluff, Martha’s Vineyard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had spent the morning in Martha’s Vineyard Museum Library with Vanessa and Bob poring over the logbook of Charles W Morgan’s maiden voyage in 1841-45. One of the features of this logbook kept by James C. Osborn of Edgartown, 2nd Mate, is the extraordinary watercolours of whaling and whales – disturbing in their violence and brutality, mesmerising in their colour and macabre beauty. Despite killing porpoises, a shark and a terrapin, it was really Sperm Whales the Charles W. Morgan was after: “Thursday November 11 (1841) strong breeze from the SE, pleasant weather, watch employed in ship’s duty. Saw more Right Whales, an excellent harvest they would be for those who wish to gather them, but we are after what is considered higher game.”

From Journal of a Voyage to pacific Ocean in Ship Chas W. Morgan, Chas A. Norton Master, 1841 kept by James C. Osborn. Martha's Vineyard Museum Library.

From Journal of a Voyage to pacific Ocean in Ship Chas W. Morgan, Chas A. Norton Master, 1841 kept by James C. Osborn.
Martha’s Vineyard Museum Library.

Studying the first logbook of the Charles W Morgan in Martha's Vineyard Library. Courtesy Bob Wallace.

Studying the first logbook of the Charles W Morgan in Martha’s Vineyard Library. Courtesy Bob Wallace.

James C Osborn's whale watercolour in the 1841 logbook. Courtesy of Martha's Vineyard Museum

James C Osborn’s whale watercolour in the 1841 logbook. Courtesy of Martha’s Vineyard Museum

James C Osborn's Right Whale watercolour in the 1841 logbook. Courtesy of Martha's Vineyard Museum

James C Osborn’s Right Whale watercolour in the 1841 logbook. Courtesy of Martha’s Vineyard Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the library I wandered around Edgartown, the main town of Martha’s Vineyard, which I found a bit too neat and tidy, a bit too perfect with lots of holiday makers with ice creams and shopping bags. Then a bus to Vineyard Haven and the familiar three masts towering over Tisbury Dock – the ship waiting for me! There was bustle and activity all around in the dockside activity tents and displays that accompany the Charles W Morgan to each port: Spouter the 46 foot life-size young sperm whale had had to be deflated due to wind strength but the wirework humpback whale sculpture onto which visitors pinned thought bubbles was popular as were the demonstrations of ironworking, rope making, cooperage, whaleboat rowing and knot tying. Voyage partner, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had an exhibit booth with a strong whale and marine conservation message and examples of baleen, whales teeth, bone and children’s activities.

Dockside activities - the wire mesh sculpture of a humpback whale covered with visitors' thought bubbles.

Dockside activities – the wire mesh sculpture of a humpback whale covered with visitors’ thought bubbles.

Thought bubbles ...

Thought bubbles …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At 1900 after a BBQ and a few beers we gathered our belongings and went on board, had a safety briefing by the 2nd mate Roxanna (Rocky) Hadler and were sent below to the focsle to choose our own very narrow curtained berth. I chose an upper berth just near the entrance so I could get out without disturbing too many people. Mary Wayss was below me.

Ready on deck for our briefing

Ready on deck for our briefing

Focsle berths - cosy and narrow!

Focsle berths – cosy and narrow!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That done, belongings stowed, we toured the ship, some for the first time, and then we were left to wander with the warning that lights were out at 2200. As dusk fell, silence descended. Crew members were gathered on deck in small groups, and on the Anchor Deck Geoff Kaufman, chanteyman from Mystic Seaport Museum produced two concertinas and a Hawaiian bamboo nose pipe. Soon a haunting melody from the pipe filled the darkening deck, followed by several lively shanties. Magic.

The Morgan and me - the night comes in ...

The Morgan and me – the night comes in …

Sunset, Vineyard Haven

Sunset, Vineyard Haven

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the night drew in and we went below to the focsle I thought of the men who had slept right here on the 37 voyages – only 72 inches of length and very narrow width with a beam only one handspan above my face.  And no bright pink silk sheets either! At 2200 hours as I lay there I wrote “crew moving about also getting ready to sleep. We have the luxury of a fan to move the air around. The berth is just long enough for me at 5’3″. Surrounded by thin curtains, I can hear zips and snaps, belts being unbuckled, sleeping bags being zipped, shoes being set down. Someone burps, plastic bags crackle. I can barely feel the ship move but it is a very still night. I think of who might have slept here before me, clutching their small private spaces, the only private or personal space on the ship”.

There was little sleep for me this night. Too excited, I found the large fan in the focsle a 21st century nuisance – noisy and cold accompanied by more authentic background snoring from various berths. …. so ends this day.

Ship in darkness

Ship in darkness

My berth in the focsle - the shocking pink silk sleeping sheets borrowed from my friend Sue.

My berth in the focsle – the shocking pink silk sleeping sheets borrowed from my friend Sue.

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Author: lesleybw

Traveller, explorer, writer, reader, sailor, free spirit, historian and heritage professional, fascinated with the interconnection between past and present, people and places. Lover of the sea and islands, I am happiest on or by the water with the sounds of sails, seabirds, waves, winds and even storms. Currently I am researching the South Pacific in the second half of the 19th and early 20th century - whaling, exploration, settlements, trading, colonial politics, aspirations and conflicts, 'black birding', the Bounty legacy - and writing the stories of my great-great-grandparent's life on a remote Pacific Island. I carry their restless spirits in my bones!

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