Every so often a subject is made for a venue like a slice of gruyere cheese on a Carr’s cracker, and so it was Wednesday night, January 22 — a notably frigid five-degree evening — when a sold-out crowd dined at the nostalgically charming Black Dog Tavern on Vineyard Haven harbor and listened to Matthew Stackpole discuss the life and death and rebirth of the Charles W. Morgan. It was the first in a series of fundraising dinners and lectures hosted by Sail Martha’s Vineyard.
With its sloping wooden doors and windows aglow against massive drifts of snow and vistas of lonesome boats afloat on cold black waters, the restaurant made for a perfect backdrop for whopping tales of a mighty whaler and its 80 years of service.
Let it be noted that whenever the golden age of whaling is invoked, the geography is almost inevitably framed by Nantucket, New Bedford, and Martha’s Vineyard.
Mr. Stackpole’s life and achievements prove a case in point: He was born and raised for his first seven years on Nantucket before his historian dad was tapped to oversee the maritime museum at Mystic Seaport. Today Ms. Stackpole proudly proclaims, “I played on the Charles W. Morgan when it was moored right out in front of us.”
Today, as part of the fund raising team and ship’s historian for the Morgan Restoration Project of this, the oldest American commercial sailing ship in operation, he’s come full circle.
The Vineyard too lays claim to Mr. Stackpole. Over the years he served as executive director for the Martha’s Vineyard Museum and president of Sail M.V. Now, as the ancient vessel nears a total retrofit, Mr. Stackpole is clearly thrilled about its date with Vineyard destiny: The wooden whaler that hasn’t sailed since 1922, will swan its glorious way into Vineyard Haven for a four day visit June 21 through 24.
At the Black Dog Tavern, paintings, drawings, and photographs flashed behind Mr. Stackpole as he regaled us with stories of the Charles W. Morgan’s maiden voyage on September 6, 1841. He quoted Island historian David McCullough: “The story of the American whaling industry, which the Charles W. Morgan so powerfully represents, is a rousing chapter in our nation’s history.”
Renowned painter Frederick Cousins captured the vessel on canvas, with its myriad ruffles — like a lady’s petticoat — hued with a pale amber glow of sunrise as it left New Bedford under full sail. It was 113 feet long, with a beam of 27 feet, six inches. Its rigging soared 135 feet above the water, and it has a depth of hold of 17 feet, six inches.
Its first voyage went first to the Azores, down the west coast of Africa, then over to the eastern coast of South America, around Cape Horn, up to the Arctic, and then back around Cape Horn to New Bedford. It took three years and four months. The captain was Islander Thomas Norton, with a crew of 35, many of them fellow Vineyarders.
Mr. Stackpole described a convocation — called a gam — of two New England whaleships near to the equator in the Pacific in 1841. “Whalers at sea would drop sail and send small ships back and forth to share letters and news with one another.” On this particular gam, a young feckless sailor on the Achusnet (feckless because the sailor later deserted to Taipei) happened to be named Herman Melville.
In the chit-chat and swapping of war stories with sailors from the other ship, Melville learned about the wreck of the Nantucket whaling ship Essex, struck by a whale in 1820, thus sending its survivors in life boats out into a merciless sea. Melville’s imagination was so inflamed by this story of a homicidal whale that back home he wrote “Moby Dick,” a book that sold few copies in its author’s lifetime but that since, of course, has served as the masterwork of the whaling era, and of American letters as well.
On that first voyage, the crew of the Morgan harpooned 70 whales and brought back 1,600 barrels of sperm oil, the finest lubricant and fuel for lanterns and machines of its time. During the more than 250 years of whaling under sail, 2,700 whaling ships plied the world’s oceans. Mariners on these ships compiled charts so meticulous, they were used in World War II to guide our battleships.
The Charles W. Morgan was deemed a “lucky ship” for surviving all the ordeals accrued from its 37 voyages — typhoons, near wreckage on a coral reef while being attacked by hostile speared natives, enclosure by Arctic ice, attacks on the whaling fleet by Confederate raiders during the Civil War, all of these near escapes culminating in valiant and lucrative returns to New Bedford, the hold a-groan with barrels of oil and baleen (whale bone used for a multiplicity of things, including ladies’ corsets).
In 1941, a decommissioned Charles W. Morgan arrived in Mystic as the Seaport’s key attraction. Many years later, with the restoration in full bloom, marine archeologists have been given a unique glimpse of the original wooden material. Meanwhile, new joists and beams right down to the keel have been wrought from white oak and locust trees shipped from Virginia and Connecticut, live oak from hurricanes, and long leaf yellow pine from Florida, Virginia, and Alabama.
There remains a wealth of whaling lore — almost, it would seem, an infinite amount. Mr. Stackpole treated his audience to the spoken equivalent of a full book. And books galore await the avid arm-chair mariner, not forgetting visits to the M.V. Museum filled with memorabilia of all things nautical. But in the meantime, a profound immersion lies in store for all of us on June 21–24 when a-whaling we may go (in a stationary sort of way), aboard the Charles W. Morgan in a neighborhood near you.
The next fundraising dinner is on Wednesday, Feb. 12, from 6 to 9 pm, at the Black Dog Tavern. For more information, visit sailmv.com or call 508-696-7644.