With a budget of $10 million dollars and 170 years of history on the line, restoration teams and shipwrights are painstakingly restoring the Charles W. Morgan, the last remaining American wooden whaling vessel, with an eye not only toward making her last for another 170 years but to take her sailing once again.
I am absolutely fascinated by this project, spotlighted in today's New York Times, as well as with the Morgan, Mystic Seaport, and wooden sailing ships in general. The breathtaking simplicity and beauty of a tall ship under sail belie the complexity of the wooden sailing machine itself. From a distance, it's all hull and masts and sails but up close, it's a fantastical maze of lines and blocks that to an untrained eye would seem impossible to decode. The idea of restoring the Morgan so she can head to sea is a wonderful one that I hope will fire the imagination of young children who watch the ship sail by or walk her decks in some port here in New England.
That's how it happened to me though with a book rather than seeing a ship. At age 11 my father gave me my first copy of C.S. Forester's Beat to Quarters. Reading about Captain Horatio Hornblower and his battles against Napoleon's navy absolutely captured me. My dad and I played Wooden Ships & Iron Men incessantly. Then I read the now-out-of-print Eagle of the Sea by Bruce Grant and had to visit the U.S.S Constitution in Charlestown, MA. I can't get enough of the TV footage of the grand old ship whenever she is under sail as happened in 1997, just in time for her 200th birthday. I think it says something about me that my first official date with the woman who would eventually become my wife involved taking her to the U.S.S. Constitution on a late December afternoon followed by Mexican food at The Border Cafe. I think if I was going to make one entirely selfish wish, it might be to have been aboard for that 1997 sail or, since I can't go back in time, to be aboard for the annual "turnaround cruise".
As I sit here at my desk, I can glance over my shoulder to a huge framed poster of Mystic Seaport and its many vessels. Directly to my right is a vintage poster promoting visits to the H.M.S. Victory in Portsmouth, England (my visit there almost 20 years ago was something of a religious experience for me), while a calendar of sailing vessels, a large framed photo of wooden workboats in Grenada, and a photo of the light cruiser U.S.S. Montpelier all face me on the wall behind my desk. I won't bore you with the recitation of the other photos and posters of ships that I've seen and sailed upon spread throughout the house. And of course, there are the books...well, that recitation would just take far far too long.
Instead, I'll just think about seeing the Morgan under sail sometime in 2011 and while I've been on board her many times over the years at Mystic, I think it's pretty safe to say that I'll brave the lines and crowds when she sails into Newport or New Bedford to have my imagination fired up again.