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Whaling ship from 1841 docks in Charlestown

Restored ship Charles W. Morgan will port with USS Constitution for a week

The restored 1841 whale ship Charles W. Morgan sailed from Provincetown to Boston on Tuesday for a weeklong stay at the Charlestown Navy Yard, side by side with the USS Constitution.

Among the 59 passengers and crew were the president of the Boston construction firm that discovered 18 truckloads of long-buried timber from the 1800s for the project in Charlestown, a Melville scholar trying to get the feel of the whaling life, and the son of Jacques Cousteau.

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“I thought she’d do well, but she’s doing even better than I expected,” said captain Kip Files, hired by Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport to lead the 38th voyage of the Morgan. “It brings so many people together.”

The ship, which has belonged to Mystic since 1941, embarked May 17 and will sail until Aug. 9, hitting five southern New England ports before Boston. It will visit the Mass. Maritime Academy and New London, Conn., before returning to Mystic.

Mystic Seaport spent $7.5 million over the last 5½ years to restore the ship to seaworthy condition. It is the last surviving whale ship still afloat, and its berth next to the Constitution is a first-time meeting of the two ships, expected to draw thousands of visitors when the Morgan opens for tours Friday through Tuesday.

“I can’t wait to see the ships next to each other and get that sense of scale,” said Anne Grimes Rand, president of the USS Constitution Museum.

With light winds, a tight schedule, and thunderstorms in the forecast, the Morgan was towed from Provincetown to Boston’s outer harbor by the tug Sirius out of Vineyard Haven. But the crew still raised sails with cries of “Sheet ho!” They got in a short period under sail alone before hooking up to the tug again for the final approach to the dock.

And being towed had its upside as the Morgan was caught in a thick fog crossing Cape Cod Bay. “A captain in the 1840s wouldn’t have liked being out in the fog so close to land without an engine,” Files said.

Among the happiest passengers was Richard Walsh of Walsh Brothers Construction. His company was excavating in Charlestown in June 2010 for the new Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital when, 80 feet below sea level, it struck what amounted to gold: prime shipbuilding timbers, numbered and arranged by shape, buried in the mud to store and preserve them more than a century ago but never used. The timber was trucked to Mystic for rebuilding the Morgan below decks. “We struck history or history struck us,” Walsh said.

Explorer and activist Jean-Michel Cousteau was on board with Daniel Basta, director of the office of National Marine Sanctuaries for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to highlight the Morgan as a symbol of humans’ changing relationship with the oceans in general and whales in particular. Although records are incomplete, the Morgan’s crews slaughtered many hundreds of whales over its first 37 voyages, producing thousands of barrels of oil.

“What would we tell the men of the Morgan because of what we know now?” Cousteau said. “The men of the Morgan did not know that the ocean would ever be exhausted. Today we know, and there is no excuse to continue our behavior.”

Last weekend when the Morgan lowered a whale boat to the sea on Stellwagen Bank, the six-man crew was only hunting with cameras, and its close encounter with a humpback whale was downright playful, said second mate Sean Bercaw, who was in charge. Having the whale swim right under their small boat also gave him a vivid impression of its size and power.

It made him realize “the audacity of the men who rowed a boat after a whale that size and stuck a harpoon in its side,” Bercaw said. Nine of those on board Tuesday were “Voyagers,” among 80 scholars, writers, teachers, and artists selected from 300 applicants to spend a day or two on board to expand the voyage’s impact.

“The idea is just to get a different perspective on what we’re doing,” said Paul O’Pecko, Mystic’s vice president for collections and research. “It will reach out to different audiences that we wouldn’t have touched otherwise.”

“It’s just to get the feel of what it was like to be on the ocean under sail and to hear the language of the sailors and seamen,” said John Bryant, a professor at Hofstra University who is working on a two-volume biography of Herman Melville. Built in New Bedford, the Morgan is the sister ship of the Acushnet, which the “Moby-Dick” author sailed on as a young man, he said.

“They are turning the harpoon around,” said New York artist Veronica Lawlor, who was chronicling the day’s travel in pen and ink, pastels and charcoal. “It’s this huge symbolic gesture.”

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @jbnbpt.
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