Letter from the boat shop – the Morgan’s whaleboat takes shape

Ready for frames, the Charles W. Morgan's new whaleboat at Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway is planked and upright. — Photo by Steve Myrick

This winter, Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway on Vineyard Haven Harbor is at work recreating a small piece of the nation’s maritime history. The Island boatbuilders are building one of the whaleboats that will be carried by the Charles W. Morgan, the last remaining wooden whaleship and the oldest American commercial vessel still in existence.

The Morgan is now undergoing a multi-million dollar restoration at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut. Built in 1841 in New Bedford, she made 37 voyages under sail around the globe during an 80-year whaling career. Many of those voyages included Vineyard crew and captains.

The following update comes from Virginia C. Jones, Gannon and Benjamin office manager.

On Monday, February 11, we turned our whaleboat over; she is now sitting blocked up, braced, and with the bow headed toward Vineyard Haven Harbor. The crew has been milling white oak for additional frames and for the inwales. G&B has borrowed a forming/bending jig from Mystic Seaport to make the frames for our whaleboat.

A visitor recently asked Nat Benjamin about how a whaleboat compared to a lifeboat (also double-ended) and Nat said the former is less beamy. Now that the whaleboat is upright, the differences in shape are much more apparent.

The whaleboat, designed to be fast and maneuverable and to carry a crew of six and their gear, is much more shapely than a lifeboat, whose bulk is carried well forward and aft in order to accommodate as many people as possible. The whaleboat has a lovely sheer, sweeping up in the bow and slightly less in the stern. The view to the building floor from the G&B office window reveals the lovely shape of the boat. As it sits, the rich color of the cedar is highlighted by the sun that is pouring in through the plastic coverings of the annex.

The steam box has been fired up to soften the oak stock for the inwales, the horizontal timbers that reinforce the gunwale and top strake. Using a long plastic bag, the steam box was hooked up to funnel the steam (and some very hot water) into the bag. This is on the continuum between 19th and 21st century technology but, as with so much of our shop and machinery, it definitely rests more at the earlier end. The last section – to be scarfed to the longer piece – has been steamed, and is now clamped in place on the port side.

Along with some verbal pictures of the project and some of the history, it seems important to convey some information about the people who are involved, even if only peripherally. Nat Quinn is an enthusiastic young boat building apprentice from Winchester who arrived on the Vineyard last fall after studying environmental science at Colorado College. Bear Moreau is a “woodsman” from Maine who settled on the Vineyard with his family and is now learning the basics of wooden boatbuilding.

On a broader scale, we are working to plans developed by Willits Ansel, and the late Robert Allyn, both of whom were employed for years by Mystic Seaport Museum in the museum shipyard. Will’s son Walter Ansel is one of the shipwrights working on the Morgan herself. Walter wrote: “At present I am helping provide keel, inwale and stem stock, as well as whaleboat hardware. I’m also on call for assembly advice/building conundrums. My daughter Evelyn is working on the Morgan as a caulker and apprentice. She is also the point person on the effort to re-issue Willit’s Whaleboat Book (it will have at least two new chapters). For your interest you might Google Brown Alumni Magazine, Evelyn Ansel.”

Robert C. Allyn (very affectionately known to everyone in the museum as Bob) was born about 1906, and attended Webb Institute. In the depths of the depression and as his family struggled, he had to drop out in his senior year and go to work. Eventually he and his wife settled in Groton, Conn., and Bob was employed as a draftsman at Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics. When he retired, Maynard Bray (then supervisor of the shipyard in the museum) enlisted him to be the resident naval architect (a designation that Bob modestly declined to use) and he worked part time for about 15 years, until 1985, when he retired again.

During that time, Bob took the lines off of many museum vessels, drew up plans, drew sketches and detail plans. He was responsible for many tasks around the museum, such as determining the blocking for the various vessels as they were hauled on the lift dock, including the Morgan when she was taken out of the sand berth in which she had reposed since arriving at the museum in 1941. That maneuver took place one very early misty morning (as the tide reached the necessary) and from then on the Morgan has floated on her own bottom at Chubbs Wharf until being hauled for this restoration.

Bob’s plans were drawn (by hand) with precision and consuming attention to detail. I was privileged to be his neighbor in the shipyard for almost 10 years, and every conversation with him was always a huge pleasure. His knowledge, his attention to accurate measurements and historical veracity, as well as his modest personality were such that everyone in the museum, from the president on down and members of the ships — composed of knowledgeable folks such as Olin Stephens, Waldo Howland, Irving Johnson, Joel White, Maynard Bray, Henry Scheel and others — solicited and deferred to his softly spoken pronouncements. As in any institution, historical accuracy or philosophical disagreements often raged among the staff over the appropriateness of some decision or detail of a project, but when Bob gave his opinion everyone paid attention and followed his advice.

As with each of these updates we urge you to bring your family by to observe our Vineyard whaleboat, and if you would like to participate financially, please let us know. All donations go to the museum and will be used to support this whaleboat construction. If you are passing by Mystic, do stop and take a look at the project, or visit the museum with your kids and grandkids. It is a wonderful institution.