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Voyaging on the Charles W Morgan – the third part


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.

Captain Files midships watching sail handling


On deck – manila lines and a deck prism.


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!


Ryan the “stowaway” and Sarah Spencer from the staff of Mystic Seaport “knowing their ropes”


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.


Chart detail showing the ship’s route through Quick’s Hole from Vineyard Sound into Buzzard’s Bay.

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.


The mayor of New Bedford in the foreground, Chief Mate Sam Sikkema on the anchor deck.


Sailing Buzzards Bay to New Bedford- credit Andy_Price_Mystic_Seaport.jpg

Sailing Buzzards Bay to New Bedford. Credit – Andy Price, Mystic Seaport Museum.

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.


Captain Files demonstrating the art of tacking a square rigged sailing ship


Climbing the rigging - again!

Climbing the rigging – again!

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. IMG_0064

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.


Peter Gansevoort Whittemore, Herman Melville’s great-great-grandson at the helm.


Our flotilla! Photo courtesy Bunny Fleming.

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.

Passing Butlers Flat Light. Photo courtesy of Bunny Fleming.


Entering New Bedford harbour through the hurricane gates. Photo Andy Price, Mystic Seaport Museum.









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!


Even the Charles W Morgan needs fenders!


Chief Mate easing the ship into the pier.


Saying farewell

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.


Coming alongside State Pier, New Bedford.










My next post will return to Sunday Island and the Bell family.


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Voyaging on the Charles W Morgan – the second part

My last left me in my berth in the fo’c’sle too excited to sleep, accompanied by snoring and noisy rotation of the large fan. Ryan the Stowaway has commented in his blog about the snoring and even made a recording of the sounds of the fo’c’sle!

“Yesterday, a woman peered into the fo’c’sle and said “I feel bad for the people who don’t snore. That’s got to be terrible.” It’s definitely challenging. As someone who doesn’t snore, the past two nights have been like sleeping between two running air compressors. As the night drags on, the sound rises to the level of low revving chainsaws”.


Choosing berths – Susan Funk, our cohort co-ordinator from Mystic Seaport is probably pleased she is staying ashore!


Fo’c’sle – narrow berth, low headroom, intimate spaces.

Fo'c'sle in model whaling ship in New Bedford Whaling Museum

Fo’c’sle in model whaling ship in New Bedford Whaling Museum











Reading The Cruise of the Cachalot by Frank T. Bullen published in 1898, it seems that conditions in the focsle have not altered so much:

“… down the steep ladder, I entered the gloomy den which was to be for so long my home, finding it fairly packed with my shipmates. A motley crowd they were. … Finding a vacant bunk by the dim glimmer of the ancient teapot lamp that hung amidships, giving out as much smoke as light … even my seasoned head was feeling bad with the villainous reek of the place …”

We did have the luxury of electric light, curtains and the fan to move the air about. And no smoking!

Fo'c'sle - narrow berth, low headroom, intimate spaces.

Fo’c’sle – my narrow berth with exotic bedlinen, low headroom, intimate spaces.

0533 25 June 2014
“This day begins. I need to get out of this confinement. I sense a light breeze, feeling the ship move, swaying ever so gently. I extricate myself from the coffin-like bunk, trying not to wake Mary below me as I let myself down, and with bare feet go up the companionway to the deck in my pyjamas. I see the shadowy figures of the Watch talking quietly midships. The light is still dim. I feel the damp wood of the deck planks under bare feet, and notice with delight the beads of dew sitting in droplets on the oily surface. The sun is starting to rise, the wind SW, a few soft cloud puffs in the lightening sky.”

Dawn, Vineyard Haven, Martha's Vineyard, 25 June 2014

Dawn, Vineyard Haven, Martha’s Vineyard, 25 June 2014


Dawn breaking over the bowsprit and jib boom

Dawn breaking over the bowsprit and jib boom

This was precious time alone with the ship. From the anchor deck I watched the light creeping up from the East. Shortly after Mary and Vanessa appeared and we three relished the silence. Little did we realise that this time would be the only opportunity for silent reflection!

Early morning, Vineyard Haven

Early morning, Vineyard Haven

Mary Wayss, teacher at Our Sister's School, New Bedford

Mary Wayss, teacher at Our Sister’s School, New Bedford




Breakfast on deck - eggs benedict, hash browns ...

Breakfast on deck – eggs benedict, hash browns …









Later dressed and breakfasted, we were ordered ashore as the crew climbed rigging, untied sail ties and sorted lines and halyards. Ashore we met the VIP guests who were to accompany us to New Bedford including the Editor of the New Bedford Standard Times newspaper, New Bedford’s mayor and Steve White President of Mystic Seaport Museum and his wife Maggie, and a man who, as a young boy, had watched the Charles W Morgan leave New Bedford for Mystic Seaport in 1941.

Crew Briefing on deck with Chief Mate Sam Sikkema and captain 'Kip' Files

Crew Briefing on deck with Chief Mate Sam Sikkema and Captain ‘Kip’ Files

38th Voyager Vanessa Hodgkinson, an artist from London, wearing her whites approximating the loose 'slops' worn by seamen (and women disguised as seamen).

38th Voyager Vanessa Hodgkinson, an artist from London, wearing her whites approximating the loose ‘slops’ worn by seamen (and women disguised as seamen).











It was time to go! I felt almost reluctant to board, as, with the voyage’s beginning, the ending came that much closer. The wind was SW at 17 knots gusting 20-23 knots. The tugs moved into position, Jaguar alongside to port, Sirius forward with a tow line to help us out from the wharf.

Time to go

Time to go. Mary K. Bercaw Edwards, Mystic Seaport staff and Melville scholar, aloft on the foremast, freeing the sail ties on the lower topsail yard


Around us, classic yachts including the beautiful topsail schooner Shenandoah (1964),  Alabama (1926) and the William Fife designed Sumuran (1914) and modern, ribs and other boats gathered. Roann, Mystic Seaport Museum’s restored Eastern-rig Dragger was our support vessel.

Shenandoah (1964)

Shenandoah (1964)


William Fife designed Sumuran (1914) and Alabama (1926)


Roann (1948) 60-foot long, Eastern-Rig Dragger from Mystic Seaport











As I went to board I spotted a familiar face from my walking tour in New Bedford the previous Sunday. Annette Mason and her husband Bob from Solana Beach, California, were the only other participants on the tour and we had spoken of my impending voyage on the Charles W. Morgan. Annette had expressed the desire to see the ship (and stowaway!) but she was booked to leave New Bedford that evening. And here she was now, camera in hand, at Vineyard Haven. She had changed her flight back and taken the dawn ferry across to see the ship leave. Later I discovered she had persuaded the Haven harbourmaster to take her out in his launch as the ship left and she sent me some of her photographs. This is the sort of passion this ship creates in all who come to know her!

Charles W Morgan leaving Vineyard Haven. Courtesy Annette Mason.

Charles W Morgan leaving Vineyard Haven under sail. Courtesy Annette Mason.

Charles W Morgan leaving Vineyard Haven watched by Harbor Master, Jay. Courtesy Annette Mason.

Charles W Morgan leaving Vineyard Haven watched by Harbor Master, Jay. Courtesy Annette Mason.












Replacing the bulwarks after the gangplank has been removed. Foreground – one of the iron try pots in the copper and brick try works, used for extracting oil from blubber

Once on board we were allocated a watch, port or starboard, (I was port – or larboard as it would have been during he ship’s whaling days) for the fire and safety drills including man overboard and abandon ship. We went through a safety drill donning life jackets stowed in the former vegetable locker midships. On deck, the gangplank was removed, the starboard waist whaleboat was hauled up, back on its davits, the lines were loosed and the Charles W Morgan was guided gently out.

Hauling up the starboard waist whaleboat

Hauling up the starboard waist whaleboat

Lifejackets stowed in the former vegetable hold on deck. We were allocated port or starboard watches for fore and safety drills. I was in the port watch.

Lifejackets stowed in the former vegetable hold on deck.

There was a fresh breeze behind and we’d hoped to tack out to Vineyard Sound under sail and the crew began working the lines. The order was given to break the tow. But shortly thereafter, with the tide running at 3 knots, it became clear that there was no way we would even make Wood’s Hole against the tide. Orders were given and the tow line was passed back to the waiting Sirius. But even under tow, we were away!

Standing by with the lines and halyards

Standing by with the lines and halyards

Manila everywhere!

Manila everywhere!