Last Sunday I traveled with the Dalvero artists to witness (and draw) the launch of the Charles W. Morgan, the only surviving wooden whale ship in the world. (If you remember, we currently have an exhibit of art documenting her restoration and history at the seaport – see it at www.dalveromystic.com.)
A launch means that the ship leaves dry dock and is lowered on a special platform back into the water, to prepare her for sailing.
Quentin Snediker, the shipyard director, has been so generous with his time and energy and information to our little band of artists as we documented the restoration process over the last few years. He was no less hospitable on this day, and invited us to arrive as early as we liked on the day of the launch. Our group arrived at 8 am, and the shipyard was already buzzing with activity! Men and women were moving planks, tying up ropes, patching, hammering, and doing everything needed to get the Morgan ready for her big party. There were even last minute paint touch ups to her bow (top drawing) so she would look her best for the festivities. In the middle of it all was Quentin, characteristically solid and stoic, giving direction and pitching in to help with the crew. He greeted us with a smile and seemed to be distracted by work, but at times his body language gave him away…
…at one point I saw him reach out and touch the marking numbers on the hull of the Morgan, as if he were having a private conversation with her. After all, Quentin has spent more time with her over the last five years than anyone. But he has had a wonderful crew of volunteers and Mystic employees working with him as well, and together they celebrated the work they’d done.
Quentin poured out the rum – good luck for a sailing vessel – for his crew, for a final toast to the Morgan before she touched the water – this was at 9 am, before any *official* festivities began. It was raining, but I stepped into the weather to get closer, and draw this very emotional moment. Quentin read a beautiful quote:
Openings to the water I stopped; I searched for cracks and the wanting parts I fixed: Three sari of bitumen I poured over the outside; To the gods I caused oxen to be sacrificed. -Babylonian, 3rd Millennium BCE.
Sailors don’t cry, but they sometimes get caught in the rain of emotion, especially when they are watching the ship they’ve lovingly restored leave land and touch the ocean she was meant for. It was very serendipitous how a drop of rain touched each man’s face as I made this drawing, including Quentin’s. I was honored to witness such a personal moment of this very public event, and even more so when Quentin, after the toast, passed the bottle to myself and the other Dalvero artists. Cheers to the Morgan, and bottoms up!
It was still drizzling lightly, but that didn’t stop the crowd from gathering to be a part of the momentous occasion. They came by land and by water; there were many little boats and kayaks filled with spectators along the Mystic river. One man I met, Robert Simmons, told me that his father had been there when the Morgan was first towed up the Mystic river to the seaport – this was a generational event, both personally for some of the visitors, and for New England as a whole.
Soon the band struck up a tune, the TV cameras were switched on, the sun came out, and the party began!
All the pomp and circumstance felt a little like DisneyWorld’s Liberty Square to me; Ric Burns, the keynote speaker, later said that the event was like “Fourth of July on steroids.” Very true! And then, the music stopped, a blessing was said, President Stephen White led the Pledge of Allegiance, and the speechifying began, with simultaneous sign language.
Richard Victor, the Mystic Seaport Chairman, spoke of “the mission, the vision, and the resources” that had brought the Morgan to this point, and then, asked for more of the same to keep the project moving along. Connecticut State Senator Andrew Maynard read an official legal designation that had passed through the Senate, decreeing the Morgan as “a living artifact” and “an ambassador to the whales.” Fantastic!
Susan Funk, the Vice-President of Mystic Seaport, got a little emotional and teary while she spoke; I felt the same way. The day was the culmination of a lot of hard work and passion, and as artists who had drawn the entire process, we felt the same passion for her. It was a wonderful occasion but also would be somewhat sad to see the Morgan lowered into the water – she wouldn’t belong to any of us any more, she would belong to the ocean, and to the education of future generations.
The governor of Connecticut, Dannel P. Molloy, spoke of not only the Morgan but of what the whaling industry had meant to the development of the United States, something that the artists of Dalvero have covered thoroughly in our exhibit. We felt like part of the family as the governor spoke of the textile industry, the oil industry, and the industrial revolution, and how whaling had influenced them all. Documentary filmmaker Ric Burns also spoke eloquently about the Morgan’s meaning in history.
“What does it take to be the last of your kind?” he asked.
Once the speeches were done, it was time for the christening of the Morgan – to be done by Sarah Bullard, the great-great-great granddaughter of Charles W. Morgan. The bottle that she christened the ship with was filled with waters from all the seas the Morgan had sailed in, plus a drop of rum for luck. How poetic, and beautiful.
With Quentin by her side (he had given her instructions earlier) Sarah Bullard christened the ship, a cannon went off – BOOM! -and the lowering began!! The Morgan settled into the water at a rate of one foot per minute – not lightning fast but still, fairly quickly. There were a few more remarks, and a man sang sea shanties, as we watched her begin to sink down into the river.
As she was lowered, all the noise, music, and celebrations fell away when I saw Quentin Snediker watching the numbers on the Morgan’s hull dissolve into the water. I recognized that feeling of letting go, having trained so many students over the years. It’s a bittersweet moment – you want it to happen, of course, it’s what you work for, but at the same time you can’t help but feel a bit melancholy over it. It’s the same way when you complete any artistic project, and the Morgan was definitely a creative work in progress.
But you’ve got to let it go so you can begin work on something else. And when the water mark hit the number 9 on the hull, the cry went out:
“She Is Afloat!”
Cannons shot red, white and blue water into the air, and everyone cheered! A job well done for Mystic Seaport – and the beginning of the next phase of the Morgan’s new life. Soon the masts will be put in place and the sails will be rigged. I can’t wait to be there to document her next phase and sailing tour next summer, along with my fellow Dalvero artists. But for now, I think that everyone at the shipyard could use a little rest…
Yet as I overheard Quentin’s partner Maureen talk about just that, I saw Quentin back at work, tying the ropes, figuring out how to keep the Morgan from listing, planning what to do the next morning. I had to laugh. I didn’t think Quentin would be going to DisneyWorld the next day to celebrate, but maybe sleeping in and having a nice brunch? Nope, just like an artist, back at it the next morning.
Below is a drawing I made of the Morgan the evening before the launch. I wanted to evoke the lives that have been touched by her, both today and in the past, and the journeys she’s made. She truly is a living artifact, and as I looked at her on the dry dock, I felt something almost emotional radiating from her hull. Soon she will embark on a new journey, as I hope we will all embark on a new journey with her; and a new relationship with the whales and our environment. I feel personally a little sad that I will never see her up on land again, or sit among the old wooden planks and gnarled tree trunks inside her hull, but I feel honored to have the opportunity to continue my journey as an artist through her. And I’m sure the other Dalvero artists feel the same way. Thank you to Quentin Snediker, Jonathan Shay, Susan Funk and Stephen White, for this great chance to be a part of history.
The Charles W. Morgan, a living artifact at Mystic Seaport.