As I write this I am sailing on a very much smaller yacht on a very different sea. It is night and I am on first watch, alone in the cockpit of a 48 foot ketch crossing from Menorca to Sardinia. Since leaving Mahon Harbour, Menorca at 0730 this morning we have seen but two ships sail westwards and no other yachts. We have been headed by an east wind all day. I find myself comparing this with my experiences on the Charles W Morgan back in June. As I keep the log, I unconsciously use terms I have absorbed from the whaling logbooks, writing “under all sails” for example; in this case the main, mizzen and genoa. No romantic topgallants, spanker or royal here. The stars appear, the only light in the inky black which surrounds us. As I check our course and position on the chart plotter, I wish I knew how to steer by the stars. This seems so far removed from sailing on the Charles W Morgan. And yet in many ways it is not.
On 25th June the Charles W Morgan moved slowly out of Vineyard Haven under tow, lower topsails loosened on the main and foremast yards and the inner foresail raised. Crew, spreadeagled out on the bowsprit and jib boom, unfastened foresails and the mizzen staysail was hauled out. As the creamy canvas took the wind, it cracked and curled, cupping the breeze and slowly increased our speed. There was magic in the way the crew knew instantly which manila line or halyard to haul on, make fast, loose and drop. The new running rigging had been made in the Philippines, the best any rope-works could produce today.
As a sailor of smaller yachts both classic and modern, I was familiar with halyards and sheets and topping lifts and furling lines but here there seemed literally miles of wheat coloured rope everywhere, curled, loose, hanging and falling about the decks. The only difference between one golden rope and another was its position on the deck and its thickness. So much to learn!
A foresail was raised, the flaxen manila ropes snaking across the deck, gathering in great pools at the foot of the masts, hanging like sheaves of corn from the wooden pegs. The crew moved about the deck to the calls of Sam Sikkema, the Chief Mate, echoing orders back as they hauled and fastened and held and loosed and braced and dropped, furled and slackened. It was cloudy with fair visibility, south west winds at 20-23 knots. The ship’s 22nd captain Richard ‘Kip’ Files had intended to try sailing off and tacking down Vineyard Sound but a strong 3 knot tide meant a tow was necessary if we were to reach New Bedford that afternoon. If we tacked we wouldn’t even reach Wood’s Hole and waiting for the tide to turn was not an option.
Stay sails were raised to help the speed, the crew assisted by shanties led by Geoff Kaufman as they moved back along the deck hauling on the halyards. Geoff told us that halyard shanties were not necessarily used on whaling ships as they usually sailed with enough crew to manage the sails. At 1130 still under tow down Vineyard Sound, a decision was made to go through Quick’s Hole between Nashawena and Pasque Islands rather than around Cuttyhunk Island, the original route planned. This meant a shorter voyage but quicker sailing.
Once through Quick’s Hole at 1200 we broke the tow and sailed! The ship heeled as her sails filled with wind. 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 first mate to crew, echoed and repeated chorus-like as rigging was climbed, yards were raised and lowered, halyards hauled, sails unfurled, braced, backed – inner and outer foresails, mizzen and main stay sails, mainsails, lastly the top gallants gathered up the wind. I stood on the fore deck feeling the ship lift as we sailed out into the bay.
I have to agree with Ryan the stowaway who said that, “one of the greatest things about sailing aboard the Charles W Morgan is watching her tack”. As we tacked across Buzzard’s Bay, at one point reaching 8 knots, I watched in awe as the crew responded to the call “Stand by the main braces” and performed a by now well-rehearsed dance at the working braces. The mainmast has five, and foremast four yards holding the square sails and rigging. To turn the ship, the foresails are backed to catch the wind on the opposite side which drives the bow through the wind, then as the ship moves from one tack to the next, the main yards pivot elegantly as one, catching the wind once more. With boyish enthusiasm, barely able to contain his pleasure at how well the ship handled, Captain Files demonstrated the art of tacking with the help of a model ship on the deck. Down on his knees he moved the model’s yards as he explained how the foremast sails affect those on the main and mizzen, and demonstrated the systematic manoeuvres which (apparently effortlessly) turn the ship.
Then there was a chance to climb the rigging. I remembered “always three points of contact” from the climb on the Joseph Conrad in April and somehow the climb up up the Charles W Morgan’s rigging seemed easier, with firmer timber spreaders rather than ratlines. On my second climb I clipped on and paused a moment to look out over the sea and down at the decks far below. As the crew member waiting with me on the futtock shrouds shivered with cold, I reluctantly retraced my steps.
At 1430 through the haze we sighted New Bedford. Almost as if she had sensed this long before, the Charles W Morgan was flying under all sails but the royal, heading for her home port for the first time in 71 years. She was going too fast! I had hoped to have a turn at the helm (referred to by more experienced crew as the “shin cracker”) and waited patiently in line with other 38th Voyagers.
But we were too late. At 1520 the slowing down process started; the second mate took the helm, the main yards backed, fore and main yard squared and braced up and then the tow lines passed to waiting Sirius, the fore topsail braced in, the jib taken in, the inner and upper topsails lowered.
The ship approached the hurricane gates, still wearing her lower topsails accompanied by a flotilla of more than 40 boats and a local press helicopter buzzing above. Crowds of people lined the two shores as we heard the sudden boom and saw the smoke of cannons fired in welcome from Fort Phoenix on our starboard side. The ship was coming home.
I wondered how Parkins Christian had felt as he approached his adopted home when yet another whaling voyage was ending. After serving on the New Bedford whalers the Canton and the California, he had joined the crew of the Charles W Morgan in 1893 and remained on her until 1913. In 1916 the Boston Herald described him as a “disappointed man” when he returned from a summer whaling cruise on the schooner A.M. Nicholson which he had joined after learning his “old love” would not be sent out that year. On his return he discovered that in fact the ship had just left New Bedford for Cape Desolation, Greenland, after “sea elephants” (elephant seals). He said that if he had seen her on the whaling grounds he would have deserted the schooner to go to “my old love, even if I have to swim for it”. As I felt the ship move through the water I could quite understand his feelings. I too will always cherish my short time sailing on the Charles W Morgan!
As the ship gently approached the State Pier in New Bedford and completed this leg of her historic 38th voyage, I had feelings of both elation and sadness. I was now one of a very few people alive who had sailed on an American wooden whaling ship. I had climbed the rigging twice during the voyage, savouring the sheer joy of being aloft on the mainmast as the ship sailed. I had spent the night in the fo’c’sle, listening to the sounds of the ship, the sleeping crew, the watch on deck and aware of the almost imperceptible movements of the ship in the water. I had hauled halyards and freed off lines, sung shanties, hung over the bow as the the keel sliced through the water and watched the sun rise over the white jib boom. And now it was time to leave. My voyage was over and for the next few days she was New Bedford’s once more.
My next post will return to Sunday Island and the Bell family.