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A 21st-century sail on a 19th-century whaling ship

The whaleship Charles W. Morgan made Boston Harbor a port of call in July on its historic 38th Voyage.
The whaleship Charles W. Morgan made Boston Harbor a port of call in July on its historic 38th Voyage.(JOHN TLUMACKI/GLOBE STAFF)

BOURNE — Bending, extending an arm, and pushing a ship’s model around on the deck of the 173-year-old whaling ship Charles W. Morgan, Captain Kip Files offered a lesson on tacking as we sailed from Vineyard Haven to New Bedford in late June.

“This vessel can’t sail directly into the wind,” he said, as he began to demonstrate how sails would be maneuvered to manipulate the wind and effectively kick the ship’s stern out and turn the craft in the desired direction, to effect a zigzag course.

“The reason a sail works is because it’s shaped just like a bird’s wing,” Files said, explaining how the difference in air pressure on either side of a sail can affect a ship’s locomotion. Gazing aloft, he continued the lesson, saying, “You bring the tack of the sail through the eye of the wind.” Then he ran through a litany of actions that would move the sails, and the ship. I couldn’t help but think of the vessel as a floating Rube Goldberg machine: lines and sails and blocks, wind and water all contributing at the appropriate time to the desired movement of the ship.

“Simple. Anybody could do it. It’s like a dinghy,” Files deadpanned to chuckles from the passengers on deck.

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Captain of the 38th Voyage of the Charles W. Morgan, Capt. Kip Files.
Captain of the 38th Voyage of the Charles W. Morgan, Capt. Kip Files.(Rob Burbank for the boston globe)

And with the captain’s command, “Mainsail, haul!” the crew yanked on the lines, the yardarm swung smoothly, sails billowed, and the Morgan was on the starboard tack.

“Does it get any more fun than tacking a square-rigger? I don’t know,” Files beamed.

It was a remarkably smooth transition, and an unlikely and breathtaking event to witness as this, the last remaining wooden whaling ship in the world, plied the waves on its way to its original home port and where it was built, New Bedford.

Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Conn., has been the keeper of the Morgan — now a National Historic Landmark — since it was towed from Round Hill in South Dartmouth in 1941.

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The past 5½ years have seen a major restoration of the 113-foot ship at the du Pont Shipyard at Mystic, and while there had been no intent to sail her again, museum personnel began to entertain the notion as the restoration proceeded. The result was the 38th Voyage, in which the Morgan visited several New England ports of call this summer.

In introducing the ship to visitors at various ports, a brief documentary film is shown to provide historical context. In that film, the men who went whaling were called the astronauts of their time, traveling to faraway places on technically advanced and specialized craft built for the job.

My great-uncle, Jacinto “Jesse” Costa, was one of those “astronauts.” Down at the New Bedford docks at 16, he hopped on board the Morgan and served as a crew member on an Atlantic voyage that would take him off the coast of South America in search of whales, and the oil for which they were valued.

His trip was the Morgan’s 35th, from July 16, 1918, to Sept. 7, 1919, a short one compared with the three- to four-year journeys that were common during the height of the whaling industry in the mid-1800s. The ship arrived back in New Bedford with a cargo of whale oil worth $26,444.25, equivalent to nearly $364,000 in today’s dollars.

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The Morgan would sail just twice more before being retired, for a total of 37 trips that took it to whaling grounds and ports around the world.

The Morgan is sailing again this summer — for the first time in generations — on the 38th Voyage, an amazing undertaking by museum staff, and an unparalleled opportunity for the public to climb aboard and explore the ship at several New England ports of call.

Mystic Seaport Museum put out a call for proposals for people who would want to spend 24 hours aboard ship, experiencing a transit between some of those ports of call. I was among those chosen, and I traveled from Vineyard Haven to New Bedford along with fellow voyagers involved in historical research, writing, education, and other disciplines.

The crew hoisted sails by Boston Harbor onboard The Charles W Morgan sails from Provincetown to Boston.
The crew hoisted sails by Boston Harbor onboard The Charles W Morgan sails from Provincetown to Boston.(David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)

As one of the 38th Voyagers, I had the chance to imagine life on a working whaler, and to feel a close connection to the ship that hailed from the city of my birth and carried my great-uncle on a great adventure.

When I spoke with him in 1981 about his voyage, he recalled performing tasks such as climbing the rigging to furl sails.

“You’re barefoot, and you’ve only got about an inch [of] rope to stand on. So, there’s a trick to that — you’ve got to put it in between your toes,” he explained.

He also described the practice of scrubbing the deck with crew members’ urine that had been saved in a barrel for that purpose. “You know, when you’ve got blubber — whale blubber — aboard ship . . . that floor is all soaked with oil. And you’ve got to get the oil out of there. That’s the only thing that’ll eat that oil up,” he said.

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He recalled a time off the coast of Brazil, when a whale they had harpooned breached and crushed the second mate’s whale boat — the boat he was in — in its jaws. “I was two hours on the water, hanging onto the boat. Till the first mate sighted us, then came after us to pick us up,” he recalled.

An entry in the ship’s log refers to repairing whale boats “all day” on Feb. 6, and the recorded coordinates put the ship in that location.

His recollections, overall, were positive. And he didn’t complain about the food, noting that they often ate fish, and, sometimes, porpoise meatballs. (On the 38th Voyage, our contingent was treated to eggs Benedict for breakfast. Nothing to complain about there, either.)

As I walked the deck, I imagined my great-uncle in the same spot so many years ago. We would both feel the breeze, breathe the salt air, and hear the lapping of the waves against the Morgan’s hull. The convergence of wind, water, and wood remains the same.

In my mind’s eye, as I looked aloft, I could see him leaning over a yardarm to tend to a sail. As I dropped off to sleep aboard ship on the night before our sail, I wondered if I might be occupying the same bunk he used.

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And as we sailed into New Bedford Harbor, I wondered how he must have felt, sailing past Fairhaven’s Fort Phoenix, the Revolutionary War stronghold at the mouth of the harbor, or gliding past Butler Flats Lighthouse, seeing familiar sights as he came home after more than 13 months of seafaring.

I wondered about the Morgan, too. What would the ship say if it could talk? If it were sentient, how would it feel for a 173-year-old whaleship, a ship that hadn’t sailed in nearly three-quarters of a century, to be returning to home port?

When it was retired, the Morgan was kept as an attraction at the Colonel Edward H. R. Green estate in South Dartmouth. But there had been no endowment established for the ship’s upkeep, and when the benefactor died, so did funding, noted author John F. Leavitt in his 1973 book, “The Charles W. Morgan.”

The whaling ship Charles Morgan sailed into Boston Harbor where it docked next to the USS Constitution.
The whaling ship Charles Morgan sailed into Boston Harbor where it docked next to the USS Constitution.(John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)

Local fans of the Morgan attempted to raise money to save the ship and keep it in the community. Owners of the ship, a group known as Whaling Enshrined, entered into negotiations with Mystic Seaport, which was seeking such a ship to exhibit, Leavitt wrote, and there she went in 1941.

“The loss of the Morgan is still in the collective memory of the community,” Jon Mitchell, mayor of New Bedford, told fellow passengers on the June 25 transit from the Vineyard to his city. “The return of the Morgan is for us a turning of the page. It’s an occasion to celebrate and an occasion to move forward. It’s an auspicious event for us. It’s going to be a big party for us,” he said.

To enter New Bedford Harbor from Buzzards Bay, one must pass through a hurricane barrier built in the 1960s. A running joke had it that once the ship made it to port, the city might close the gate to the hurricane dike and not let the Morgan back out.

This summer’s events were far beyond likely. The Morgan hadn’t been sailed in generations. There had not been the intent at Mystic Seaport to take her to sea. Who would sail her? And how? There was no one alive who had sailed a wooden whaling ship, after all.

Susan Funk, Mystic Seaport’s executive vice president, credits the organization’s president, Steve White, with the vision that changed the conversation. “Steve was the one who moved the question from, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to sail the Morgan?’ to ‘How do we sail the Morgan?’ ‘What does it take?’ And, ‘Let’s do it,’ ” said Funk.

In its 19th-century heyday, New Bedford was considered the richest city in America, so lucrative was the whale oil trade. Now, thanks to changing attitudes, and changing fortunes, whales are more valuable alive than dead, valued as a tourism draw for whale-watching cruises. Today, whale conservation is promoted by such organizations as the New Bedford Whaling Museum and Mystic Seaport.

During a 38th Voyagers’ training day at Mystic Seaport this past spring, Dan Basta, director of the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, addressed those changing attitudes. Stellwagen Bank, once a place where whales were hunted, and today a national marine sanctuary, was on the Morgan’s itinerary. “When the Morgan returns to Stellwagen Bank in 2014, she will arrive not as a predator, but as a shepherd, and her cargo will be knowledge, not whale oil,” Basta said.

Those were prescient words. Indeed, other 38th Voyagers had the astonishing good fortune to sail on the Morgan among whales at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in early July.

Mystic Seaport staff along with crew of the historic whaleship Charles W. Morgan stack bars of steel ballast on pallets to be lifted out of the hold during the process of de-ballasting and de-rigging the ship.
Mystic Seaport staff along with crew of the historic whaleship Charles W. Morgan stack bars of steel ballast on pallets to be lifted out of the hold during the process of de-ballasting and de-rigging the ship.(Sean D. Elliot/Associated Press)

We made eight knots under sail from the Vineyard, a more than respectable speed. At times the ship was towed and aided by tugboats. But for hours she was under sail, cruising through two-foot seas, beneath an overcast sky, powered by the breeze.

We crossed from Vineyard Sound into Buzzards Bay via Quicks Hole, a passage in the Elizabeth Islands, and, reportedly, a common homecoming route for whalers.

Cannon fire from Fort Phoenix saluted the arrival of the Morgan as it approached the hurricane dike, and the mayor, in the starboard bow, waved to the crowd assembled there to witness the return of the historic ship, so much a part of New Bedford’s early fortunes and identity.

Soon, she was docked at New Bedford’s State Pier, welcomed by an appreciative crowd. The Morgan had returned home, to the port where it was built and launched in 1841, to the same waters from which Herman Melville set out in the Acushnet, a voyage that provided fodder for “Moby-Dick” — and to the port from which my great-uncle ventured on that 35th voyage in 1918.

Asked, when he was 79, if he had had enough of the whaling life after his 13 months at sea, so many years before, my great-uncle said that he had. But he quickly qualified that in the next breath. “Oh, I don’t say I’d never go again. I’d go now, if they’d let me; if there was any [opportunity],” Uncle Jesse told me back in 1981, long before the notion of a 38th voyage was on anyone’s mind.


Rob Burbank can be reached at rob.burbank1@gmail.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Dan Basta’s name.