At the Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway in Vineyard Haven, shipwrights have stepped back in regional maritime history. They are building a new 28-foot 19th-century whaleboat. The boat is one of nine being built across the country for the last remaining whale ship, the Charles W. Morgan, now undergoing restoration at Mystic Seaport.
The work began a month ago. Nat Benjamin, the owner of Gannon and Benjamin boatyard, calls it a great honor to be a participant. The Charles W. Morgan, a 113-foot whale ship, is being restored in Mystic Seaport at a cost of $8 million with an additional $3 million for her sailing and programs. The project began in 2008. The Charles W. Morgan has many links to the Vineyard. She was built in New Bedford in 1841 at a shipyard owned by a Vineyard family.
Her first and last captains were Vineyarders. Many of her crew came from the Vineyard. Whaling was the industry that drove much of the economy of the 19th century Vineyard, as it did the entire region. New Bedford, Nantucket and Edgartown were built with the profits from that industry.
It will cost $100,000 to build the reproduction whaleboat, and about half the money has already been raised. Mr. Benjamin hopes to have the boat completed in June, in time for delivery to Mystic Seaport for exhibit at the annual Wooden Boat Show.
Ordinarily when the boatyard turns out a new boat, Mr. Benjamin spends hours at the drawing table fine-tuning and creating the boat’s design. This time the work is different. On a bench within a few feet of the whaleboat lie plans for a Beetle whaleboat, drawn in 1974 by R.C. Allyn.
The vessel is framed mostly with white oak. “It was very common around here,” Mr. Benjamin said. She will be planked with cedar, following a specific Beetle whale boat design. The name Beetle also has links to the Vineyard. Henry Beetle Hough, the late longtime publisher and editor of the Vineyard Gazette, was descended from that boatbuilding family.
Most of the frames for this boat were cut, steamed and bent into a mold all at one time last December.
“We usually steam each frame as we need it. But this is about following a tradition. There is a lot of history in a whaleboat,” Mr. Benjamin said.
Early one morning this week, shipwrights lined up the molds precisely for the assembly of the first pieces of the boat. They checked their work using rulers and yardsticks. The boat is being built upside down. By late morning, Mr. Benjamin, together with Nat Quinn, a young shipwright, lifted the backbone of the vessel from the floor and dropped it into precut slots on top of the mold, marking the visual beginning of the boatbuilding project. The backbone is made up of two steam-bent stems with a long, white oak keel. A slot cut in the backbone will be the eventual home for the centerboard.
Matthew Stackpole of West Tisbury is a member of the Charles W. Morgan restoration team and the ship’s historian for the project. He grew up playing on the deck of the whaleship Morgan while his father Edouard A. Stackpole worked at Mystic Seaport as curator. Today, Mr. Stackpole travels around the country sharing the story about the whaleship with interested mariners and friends of mariners. “These boats had to be light, in order to be quick, quiet and strong,” Mr. Stackpole said. “Whaleboats are interesting, a perfectly evolved form, that was completely designed by its function.” The small boats were used to go out and hunt the whales, and the men aboard were trained to row up beside a whale and harpoon it. It was dangerous work, and many of the whaleboats were sunk or destroyed. Of the nine whaleboats being built now, seven will reside on the Charles W. Morgan. Five will hang from davits and two will be on the boat skid roof, amidship.
“To me it is great that Gannon and Benjamin boatyard was honored at the Wooden Boat Show at Mystic last year for its great building skills, and now they are building one of the nine boats,” Mr. Stackpole said.
Lowell’s Boat Shop in Amesbury on the shore of the Merrimack River is building another one of the whaleboats. Another is being built at the Beetle Boat Shop in Wareham in collaboration with the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
Two are being built in the Philadelphia area; others are under construction in Virginia, Maine and on the shores of Lake Michigan, Mr. Stackpole said.
“People want to participate. They recognize that this is a nationally important project,” he said.
“Here you have a restoration project. In addition to restoring the ship, this is an opportunity to teach a new generation of shipwrights about the skills associated with building a large, timber-framed vessel. That is part of our mission as a museum, to preserve the technique and knowledge. The second part of the project is to allow the same kind of learning on wooden boats, be applied to small crafts,” he added.
The restored Charles W. Morgan is expected to sail again in little over a year. Mr. Stackpole said the ship is scheduled to visit Vineyard Haven in June 2014 as part of a sailing cruise along southern New England.