Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Charles W. Morgan

In 2007, I wrote a post about the Charles W. Morgan, the only remaining American whaling ship from the days of Herman Melville's Moby Dick.  Since 1966, the ship has been docked at Mystic Seaport marine museum in Mystic, Connecticut.

I visited the ship that summer and saw a remarkably well-preserved vessel that had made over 37 voyages during its long career. The ship looked good sitting at the dock - as you can see from some of my photos below:

The ship looked fully functional, but it had only the outward appearances of being in good shape.  The ship's internal structure had deteriorated to such an extent the Morgan would like sink if it ever tried to sail again.

I read this morning in the Science Times section of the New York Times that the Morgan has been hauled out of the water and is being completely rebuilt to make it seaworthy once more.  The goal is to have it under sail in three years.

This restoration is taking advantage of every high-tech tool available.  The ship has been completely laser scanned and x-rayed to reveal the subtleties of how it was built and what parts of the internal structural elements have rotted or corroded to a dangerous point.  The $10 million dollar restoration is also adding a great deal to the knowledge of how ships were built during this era.  No plans, models, or documentation remains on the original construction of the ship so this is a chance to get a better understanding of ship construction technology.

At one time, the American whaling fleet consisted of 2700 ships like the Morgan.  Now, the Morgan is the only representative of those times.  While our views on whaling have changed dramatically in the ensuing 150 years since the heyday of whaling, boats that serviced the whaling industry are a part of our culture and deserve to be preserved - if only to remind us of how insensitive we were to the natural world.

The meeting of new technology tools and the old marine technology gives me some curious feelings.  What would those original shipwrights have thought if they could see their handiwork being analyzed by sophisticated portable x-ray scanners? What would it mean to them to know that their ship would still be with us 160 years later?  My guess is that they would have felt a great deal of pride in their workmanship. No digitization needed for them to build a ship.  They built it with their hands and their know-how.

Imagine someone in the year 2170 getting their hands on, say,  a Toyota Prius.  How primitive it would have seemed to them. How simple the times in which it was built.  An internal combustion engine hybridized with electric motors and storage batteries?  How quaint!  So... 21st Century.  But even if our future restoration team was successful, I don't believe that the Prius would never ever look as beautiful as a 19th Century, square-rigged whaling ship under full sail.

Photo Credits:

Whaling engraving from Wikipedia
Laser scan from New York Time article
All others taken by the author

More to Explore:

Moby Dick, by Herman Melville at Google Books
In to the Deep, American Whaling and the World, PBS American Experience

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