Bullard christens ‘Charles W. Morgan’ at Mystic Seaport

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Saturday, July 6, 2013 - 8:00am
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Sally Bullard holds a piece of the 'Charles W. Morgan,' originally removed during the first major restoration work performed between 1967 and 1970. The hanging knee timber is hand hewn oak. Hanging knees were vertical pieces cut from the natural section of oak where a limb grew out of the trunk and were fastened with large drift pins of iron or brass. LISA KRISTOFF/Boothbay Register
Sally Bullard holds a piece of the 'Charles W. Morgan,' originally removed during the first major restoration work performed between 1967 and 1970. The hanging knee timber is hand hewn oak. Hanging knees were vertical pieces cut from the natural section of oak where a limb grew out of the trunk and were fastened with large drift pins of iron or brass. LISA KRISTOFF/Boothbay Register

The Charles W. Morgan is being relaunched at the Mystic Seaport in Connecticut on July 21 at 2 p.m. – and East Boothbay resident Sally Bullard will christen it. Why?

Because Charles Waln Morgan was Bullard's great-great-great-grandfather. Bullard is the family's current historian.

“Having a connection with the past like this makes history so interesting and gives you such insight into times and events,” Bullard said.

The Charles W. Morgan is the last wooden whaling ship in existence out of an original fleet of 2,700. The Morgan sailed for 80 years, from 1841 to 1921.

In 1941, the ship was brought to Mystic Seaport where it has remained as a tourist exhibit while being completely restored to the tune of $8 million.

Morgan, the original owner of the vessel, was a Quaker from the Philadelphia area. He had the ship built by Zachariah and Jethro Hillman of New Bedford. The ship's first voyage was on September 6, 1841.

Before the ship's last voyage in 1921, the Charles W. Morgan was in the film “Miss Petticoats” in 1916. After its sailing days ended, the ship appeared in “Down to the Sea in Ships” in 1922 and “Java Head” in the 1930s.

Bullard's great-great-grandfather, William Wallace Crapo, and her grandfather, John Morgan Bullard, were two of the 32 members of “Whaling Enshrined,” a group created in 1925 to save the Morgan from extinction. Bullard notes it was then “sitting derelict at a dock in Fairhaven, Mass. In 1926, John Morgan Bullard acted as the clerk/attorney for the incorporation of the group. The Morgan was then towed about three miles to Round Hill in South Dartmouth, thanks to a benefactor, Edward 'Colonel' Green (son of Hetty Green, 'The Witch of Wall Street,') hull set in sand and opened the ship up to the public.

“He said he would be the ship's benefactor, but when he died in 1936 he made no provision for her in his will,” Bullard said.

Then the Hurricane of 1938 severely damaged the ship. New Bedford didn't want the boat because the town lacked funds to move it. But, Mystic Seaport could and did, on November 5, 1941.

“They got this old guy who was familiar with the Morgan to dig her out of the sand, and another person with a tug to tow her to Mystic,” Bullard said. “She was seaworthy enough not to sink on the way. She looked awful sad, awful sad when she got to Mystic.”

The Seaport then put the ship in sand: the Charles W. Morgan, the only remaining wooden whaling ship in existence was a beached whale herself.

Between 1941 and 2008 minor maintenance work was performed on the Morgan, a major attraction at the sailing museum.

Bullard has donated a hundred dollars here and there over the years.

“I had a long talk with myself about this; if it weren't for my great-great-grandfather, and other family members, there wouldn't be a Charles W. Morgan today. It was so important to them, I had to carry that on. I had to help.”

Bullard called Matthew Stackpole at Mystic Seaport and a made a donation to carry on her family's legacy.

Then, in late May of this year, Stackpole called Bullard to extend a special invitation.

“He was absolutely stammering,” Bullard said. “I thought they needed more money. He asked if I'd like to christen the boat … you could have blown me over with a feather,” Bullard said.

Of course she said yes.

“It's wonderful to have a connection with a direct descendant of Charles W. Morgan,” Stackpole said of Bullard. “We thought having Sally join us for the launch meant we would have the DNA at the first christening of the Charles W. Morgan at its second christening all these years later.”

The final plank of the hull was installed on May 10, and the last spike was gold plated. When the ship is relaunched after 172 years on July 21, work will continue through spring 2014 with the ship berthed on the lift dock at Mystic Seaport. The Charles W. Morgan will set sail that spring for a tour of several historical New England ports that were part of its history.

Stackpole's daughter, while having a conversation about the ship with her father, painted a moving visual about that spring 2014 event. Stackpole shared this with Bullard:

“When the Charles W. Morgan comes sailing back into New Bedford, the ghosts of all the other wooden whaling ships will be sailing in behind her.”

The Charles W. Morgan will sail into New Bedford Harbor, and under its own power. No antique ship, not even the U.S.S. Constitution, sails on its on power.

Bullard isn't the only one from East Boothbay involved with the Morgan. The ship's sails are being made by Nat Wilson at the Sail Loft.

Nat Wilson was awarded the honor of making the sails for the Morgan. Other sail makers bid on the project, but Wilson was chosen. Ironically, Wilson has a long history with both Mystic Seaport and the double topsail barque whaling ship that dates back to the 1970s.

It was in 1974, while the Morgan was still floated on the sand, that he was asked to make four sails for the ship (to be used for demonstration purposes during the public tours).

In 2013-2014, he and three others will be sewing the Morgan's 19 sails. Wilson said the sails are being constructed with materials used between 1880 to 1900. The cotton duck fabric was woven in India, and the finishing work completed in the U.S. It arrived in East Boothbay four weeks ago. Last week, he was still waiting for the sail boat rope, being made in Holland, of tarred (to prevent rot) hemp.

All 73 of the hand forged sail accoutrements are now in hand, crafted by Nat Harkin in Newcastle.

Wilson enjoys his work, particularly the creative process and the craftsmanship it requires.

“It's nice to see historic ships come back to life; to restore a vessel for sail,” Wilson said. “But what is also restored, and what may be even more important than the ship itself, is the memory it will invoke of the ship's sailing days. Restoring a ship also rekindles the skills needed to do it. More people become trained in those skills that then also move forward into the future.”

Work on the sails will not begin until the rope is received from Holland. Wilson said a project like this requires having all of the parts in one place before work begins. And, if the summer heat is turned up, Wilson said the work may wait until the temperatures are cooler.

“It takes a lot of man hours to make these sails,” Wilson said. “I expect it will take six months to complete them, we have until March 2014 to get them to the Seaport.”

Stackpole said, “Nat has a great reputation as a sail maker and we are thrilled to have him making the sails. And he is absolutely right about the importance of keeping skills alive. Four generations have been trained at Mystic Seaport, been taught the skills of the shipwright's trade. It's very much part of what we are. The older craftsmen made a point of having the youngest members do the finishing work on the hull. One of those young men drove in the last gold spike.”

Join Bullard and Wilson for an important moment in time, when the past and present merge to take us sailing into the future.

Stackpole relates that importance this way: “The Charles W. Morgan represents how our country grew, the science related to whaling and shipbuilding, the stories about the people and what happened to them. Her job is to make history come alive, to inspire and to remind us of what we shouldn't repeat.”