The Charles W. Morgan

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

You may not have ever heard of the Charles W. Morgan. I know I hadn’t before I arrived here in Mystic. But it turns out that the Charles W. Morgan is, as they say, “kind of a big deal.” (she has her own Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_W.Morgan(ship) ). I’ve developed a bit of a relationship with the Morgan over the course of my semester here. I’ve slept in her ‘tweendecks, huddled on her foredeck watching the stars, and performed excerpts from Moby-Dick on, in, and around her. I’ve seen the Morgan hauled out, and sampled fouling organisms from her hull. I’ve been seen (in The New York Times ) chasing fish in her bilgewater after she was dry-docked.

That’s where she is now—high out of the water, her hull supported by a network of braces that all look far too flimsy to support the world’s last wooden whaleship. She is practically a sister ship to Melville’s fictional Pequot, having been built across the river from the Acushnet, the ship whose voyages included Herman in their crew, and are said to have inspired him to write Moby-Dick. The illustrator for the class-recommended copy of Moby-Dick is said to have visited the Morgan before doing his illustrations.

A few days ago, I had scramble again up the rickety ladder that leads forty feet up to the Morgan’s main deck. I work for the CSR department here at the museum. That’s “Collections Storage and Research,” or, as we say during coffee breaks, “Cookies, Snacks, and Refreshments.” CSR work is never the same, and thus never boring. In the past, I have found myself assessing damage to scrimshawed pie-rollers coming off exhibit, vacuuming lifejackets from the 1930s, preparing a CO2 chamber to kill any microorganisms in the artifacts, and now, unloading artifacts from the world’s last wooden whaling ship.

Dave, a well-read, well-traveled museum volunteer with a gray beard is on deck with me, and below is Chris, our supervisor.

“All right,” he says, “Haul’em up.”

The Morgan was downrigged for the move—that is, all of her masts, spars, lines, etc. have been removed. The shipyard staff have re-rigged one of the Morgan’s whaleboat davits so that we can raise and lower boxes of artifacts from the precarious heights.

We hauled up the empty boxes and went below, finding and cataloguing everything from the kitchen flatware to the ship’s medicine chest to the captain’s shotgun (“The firing pins have been filed down,” said Chris). Through the portholes, we saw an elevated vista of downtown Mystic, and through the aft head, we saw the rudder, and then the ground.

“Now, this is just a simple pulley rig, so you won’t have any mechanical advantage lowering,” says Chris, “I guess I’m saying don’t drop stuff on me.”

He debarks, and I hitch the hooks into the lip of the plastic box.

“They won’t hold unless there’s tension,” I tell Dave, who is holding the davit line, “So don’t let it go slack or this box will drop.”

“That’s all right,” he says, “This one’s not breakable stuff.”

He’s joking, so I stick my head over the rail, and let the first box leave my fingers. The hooks jump about—I’m supporting the box with my hand, and they won’t grab until the rope pulls them into place. I have to let go to see if they’ll hold, and if they don’t priceless historic artifacts plummet 40 feet, and Chris gets a bump on the head.

So I let go.

The hooks pulled up into the lip, just as we had planned, and the box bounced off the side of the hull only twice on its way down.

“All right,” said Chris, “Now the shotgun!”

We lowered seven boxes, the shotgun, and a large coffeepot that way, and whether we were shivering from the cold, from exertion, or from the fear of seeing the artifacts swing free in the air, I’ll never know.

But it was just one more part of my ever-deepening relationship with the Charles W. Morgan, and as I prepared to climb down the ladder, I looked over her deck. The depressions worn into the foredeck by thousands of visitors had pooled and filled with ice. The bowsprit was gone, packed away somewhere for repairs. And the view off the bow was not waves, but trees. While I cannot imagine any of the members of the Swarthmore Friends Meeting leading a voyage to butcher whales, Charles was a Quaker, and in his time, I could see myself on the deck of this, his vessel. So go ahead: call me Ishmael.

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