Vineyard Boatyard Builds Charles W. Morgan Whaleboat Reproduction

Jun 20, 2014

A boatyard on Martha’s Vineyard played a part in the restoration of the historic whaleship Charles W. Morgan, which is visiting the Island as part of its 38th Voyage around New England. WCAI’s Louisa Hufstader spoke with the Vineyard Haven boatbuilder whose shop produced one of the whaleboats the Morgan carries on her deck.

The island of Martha’s Vineyard has a long and close connection to the Charles W. Morgan. The Morgan was built in New Bedford in 1841, but the family that owned the shipyard lived in Chilmark, and many men from Island families served aboard her as crewmembers, captains and harpooners during her 37 whaling voyages.

For the Morgan’s 38th voyage this month, a Vineyard Haven boatyard was selected to build one of the smaller vessels the whaleship carries on her deck. Nat Benjamin is co-owner of Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway.

“They needed some whaleboats, which are the small 28-foot double-ended hunting boats that the whaleship carries on her deck, and they would launch them to go after and hunt the whales when they spotted them,” said Benjamin.

The Morgan’s new whaleboats are exact replicas of the 19th-century boats that were used to harpoon whales and bring them back to the ship.

“The model was a Beetle whaleboat, an absolutely exquisitely beautiful double-ended 28-foot vessel with a beautiful sheer and a lovely run and sensual sections - just a magnificent vessel,” said Benjamin.

The whaleboats are easy to launch from the deck and then they can be rowed, using an oar for steering, or they can be sailed with a rudder.

“It’s always good to have some redundancy in a vessel that is coming close to the largest mammal on the planet with its flukes flailing around and so on, so there was to say the least always an element of danger,” Benjamin noted.

The whaleboat design reached its ultimate form in the 19th century, but its origins go back more than a thousand years.

“The Norse sailors were using double-ended whaleboats to hunt whales in the ninth century,” Benjamin said. “And when you think of the shape of the boat and the type of boat, it really goes back to man’s earliest creation, the canoe.”

Gannon and Benjamin built the whaleboat using white oak and traditional tools.

“Planes, chisels, hatchets, adzes, all those boatbuilding tools were used building the whaleboat. Bandsaws have been around for a long time. They were steam powered before they were electrified,” said Benjamin.

The Morgan will be launching its whaleboats this weekend for racing and demonstration.