After our Saturday cohort in two groups got introduced to the fore and aft of the ship, we gathered on the dock to split into the three groups in which we would move through the rest of the day. I was in Group 1, consisting of those here today who would be on one of the first three legs of the voyage, the other two groups similarly composed. Each group would in a different sequence (a) revisit the Morgan to explore her restoration, (b) visit the Mystic Seaport Museum Archive, and (c) discuss logistics for the upcoming summer voyage. My group began with the restoration of the ship, so we walked back aboard.
This tour, too, started in the blubber room. Dana Hawson, our guide, had been involved from the time the decision was made around 2008 to go ahead and restore the ship so as to save it. When it had first come to Mystic, the Morgan had been planted in sand. This seemed safe for restoration until it was found that the planks were corroding and warping to such a degree that a thorough restoration would be necessary if the long-term life of the ship was to be preserved. The ship was therefore restored from the waterline all the way down to the keel, with the keel itself, and the keelson which runs above it, nearly the only parts that did not have to be replaced (these having been deep enough in the sand to be moistened enough by water that they would not degrade).
Standing again in the blubber room, we learned a lot about what kind of wood was originally used to build this ship. White pine, with a strong straight grain, was used for the mast and for the keel. For the planking of the hull, which had to be strong, but also had to he shaped into a curve, the best wood was a kind of oak that grew on plantations in the South, a large oak whose limbs curved dramatically (for a curved plank was much stronger if cut from wood whose own grain curves naturally rather than from a straight-grained source). A different, softer kind of wood, yellow pine, is used for much of the inner planking not so exposed to the elements. Though some of the inner planks here in the blubber room were much older than others, the older ones, we were told, probably dated from the first restoration in the 1970s.
Old timber meets new in ceiling brace of blubber room
Outer planking of the ship
In one place the overhead timber we had bumped our heads against featured a very old beam against which a brand-new one abutted. Dana thought this older piece probably did date from the original ship. Through some of the planks on the inside of the blubber room we saw glimpses of the wooden “ribs,” or “frames,” of the ship that trellis both the inner and outer planks. These were of oak, I believe, too. Today comparable wood of appropriate length and strength and length is not so easily available. These upward curving shapes on either side are what make the skeleton of a ship laid out on the stocks look like the overturned spine of a whale, whose skeletal rib cage, which encloses its heart, is always my favorite part of its bare-boned shape.
Backing down into the hold
After being introduced to many niceties of the restoration process in the blubber room (including the kind of wood, I think it was black walnut, for the wooden pegs that hold the planks together, some of them reaching from the outer planks through the supporting ribs on through the inner planking), we went down into the hold, an area that will not be available to the day passengers (and maybe not to the 38th voyagers) during the actual voyage. After carefully backing down a steep ladder, we stood on a temporary platform filling the space running wall-to-wall probably five feet above the keelson, leaving only the curve of the bow back to the base of the foremast visible below us. Dana explained that during a voyage the hold was originally filled with water casks whose contents provided considerable ballast when outward bound, later to be matched by oil casks who contents provided comparable ballast when returning from the whaling grounds.
Concrete blocks for ballast before temporary deck near base of mast
On our voyage there would be no water or oil casks. Instead, some ballast would be provided by concrete blocks such as we saw stacked on each side of the lower curve of the hull forward from the foremast. These would have to be relatively light when the ship sailed from Mystic to New London to begin the voyage, as the mouth of the Mystic River reaches a depth of only thirteen feet at high tide—whereas the ship, at its lightest, draws about twelve feet below the waterline. For safety at sea, a deeper draw would be needed, so considerable ballast will be added when the ship reaches New London. I hope during the voyage I will be able to come down here while the ship is moving, because I am sure the feel and sound of the ship will be different. Besides, I want to try to imagine what Queequeg was feeling like when he was wrestling huge oil casks around in the hold while the ship was underway, everyone else doing whatever they were doing high above him.
When we were talking of the woods used to build the original ship, one of my companions said she had always heard that Douglas fir was used for constructing the ribs and keel of a whale ship. Dana explained that this was not true for the Morgan or any of its sister ships on the East Coast because Douglas fir, native only to the West Coast, was not yet available to builders in the East. In 1841, when the Morgan sailed for the first time, the Olympic Peninsula and Cascade Mountains in my home state of Washington, home to some of the finest fir forests in the world, were still the exclusive home of Native American tribes, Seattle, for example, was not even yet founded until 1851. East Coast, white-skinned hegemony over the region had not even begun until Herman Melville’s cousin Guert Gansevoort successfully commanded the warship Decater in the Battle of Seattle in 1856 that guaranteed that the various treaties the natives had signed in 1855 would in fact open the resources of these virgin forests to East Coast development.
I had vaguely remembered from history courses at Everett High School, thirty miles north of Seattle, in the early 1960s, that our city had been founded by a lot of Bostonians who had eventually been responsible for building the Great Northern Railway that reached Everett from the East, after having tunneled through the base of the Cascade Mountains, in 1893. I had not then connected street names such as Everett. Wetmore, and Rockefeller with the East Coast whaling and shipping industries in the way I am now doing standing deep in the hold of the Morgan. I was now more easily able to imagine the destination of those noble, virgin Douglas firs that were soon to be deforested from the mountain slopes visible from my home town to be sent by rail to become the masts and keels of tall ships near the end of the century during which the heyday of the American whaling business in the 1840s and 1850s had been punctured by the discovery of oil wells in Pennsylvania in 1859.
Worker down in hold seen from blubber room
Morgan masthead high above the deck
I had always loved the passage toward the end of Father Mapple’s sermon in Moby-Dick in which he offers these words of assurance to apprehensive whalers about to embark upon a three-year voyage into uncharted waters: “But oh! shipmates! on the starboard hand of every woe, there is a sure delight, and higher the top of that delight than the bottom of woe is deep. Is not the main-truck higher than the keelson is low?” (“The Sermon,” chapter 9). Today I was learning much more than ever before exactly about how low the keelson is—as well as how high the main-truck rises above it.