Video: How (and Why) to Sail a 19th-Century Whaling Ship

A modern crew learns the secrets of sailing a 173-year-old whaler.

The Charles W. Morgan, a 173-year-old square-rigger that was used to hunt whales around the globe, has been made seaworthy after almost a century in the docks.

This summer the whaleship is plying New England waters after an extensive five-year restoration at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. The ship is bringing a public exhibit on America's whaling history to ports between New London, Connecticut, and Boston. The Morgan, a National Historic Landmark, is the second oldest ship in America after the U.S.S. Constitution, a warship built in 1797.

"No other ship like this exists," says Matthew Lawrence, a maritime archaeologist with the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. "While we can study shipwrecks of whaling ships on the seafloor ... to really see the full fabric of the ship in operation is a tremendous experience."

"People think that whaling is just a New England story and don't realize that whaling products found their way into nearly every American home in the mid-1800s, and that whaling itself was also part of the American character," says Elysa Engelman, exhibits researcher and developer at Mystic Seaport.

Whale oil was once the main source of illumination in lamps and candles, she says, noting it was also the universal lubricant for everything from watches to factories that powered the Industrial Revolution. Whalebone was fashioned into fishing poles, buggy whips, and other items.

During 80 years of service the Morgan completed 37 three- to five-year whaling voyages. It sailed throughout the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans; into the Arctic; and around the treacherous tip of South America, according to Mystic Seaport. More than 1,500 sailors from at least 50 countries served as crew.

In 1921, with whale populations declining, petroleum replacing whale oil, and far more efficient mechanized whaling ships and weaponry coming into use, the Morgan was retired. It rested in the sand near a Massachusetts estate until 1941, when Mystic Seaport acquired it.

Rebecca Kessler is a freelance science writer based in Providence, Rhode Island.