On Saturday afternoon a crowd gathered at the Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway. They had come to witness the launching of a 28-foot replica whaleboat which had been built at the shipyard as part of the restoration of the Charles W. Morgan, the only remaining wooden whaling ship in the U.S. The crowd was not filled with mere bystanders, though. Muscle was needed.
“It takes a village to put one of these together,” said Nat Benjamin, one of the shipyard’s founders. “It looks like it’s going to take a whole city to launch it.”
Several men and women from the crowd joined in to help heave the boat off its braces. They steadied the boat at shoulder height and escorted it carefully down the sand. Those at the bow waded up to their knees and then lowered the front of the boat onto the water. It came to rest with a light splash. Those at the stern followed and when the boat was released it rocked gently with the tide. The crowd applauded.
Gannon & Benjamin is one of 10 shipyards across the country that has committed to building a whaleboat for the Morgan. Launched in 1841, the Morgan served for 80 years and made a total of 37 voyages. Her pursuit of blubber and whalebone, which were crucial to American industry at the time, took her to the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans where she faced ice storms and even a cannibal attack.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, Martha’s Vineyard served as one of the larger hubs of the whaling community. Its ports were home to countless whaling ships, including the Morgan. The Morgan’s first crew consisted of 14 Vineyarders, and six of her 21 eventual captains hailed from the Island, Matthew Stackpole said at the whaleboat’s launch.
“People from this Island travelled the world,” Mr. Stackpole said.
When the Morgan has been fully restored it will return to the Island for a reunion with descendants of her original crew.
The whaleboat project began at Gannon & Benjamin in January. “We contracted with the Mystic Seaport Museum (MSM) to build the whaleboat for $100,000,” Mr. Benjamin said. “Gannon & Benjamin has done its own fundraising and tax deductible donations are made out to MSM care of the Gannnon & Benjamin boatyard, earmarked whaleboat. We have another $25,000 to raise to complete the project and furnish it with oars, rig and sails.”
The boat is based on original designs by the Beetle Boat Shop in Wareham, Mass., which built many of the Morgan’s whaleboats during its heyday in the 19th century.
As many as seven whaleboats similar to the one launched on Saturday were carried on and deployed from the Morgan to hunt whales as large as 60 tons.
“When it comes to whaleboats, form follows function,” said Mr. Stackpole. “This is an all-American boat.”