Thursday, October 2, 2008

Missing Ernestina

September 14, 2008

The motorsailer Queen Charlotte was forced into New Bedford, Massachusetts by engine problems, but truly, the crew could hardly be sorry. New Bedford is a splendidly salty town -- the headquarters of the New England whaling fleet, the town where Herman Melville shipped out on the voyage that inspired his masterpiece Moby Dick, the place where a jocular whaling captain gave an abandoned oyster smack to Joshua Slocum, who rebuilt it here and then sailed it alone around the world.

New Bedford is also home to C.E. Beckman Co., the oldest family-owned business and the oldest chandler in America, now being managed by the seventh generation of Beckmans in the ultra-historic building it has occupied since 1790. Needing a new starter for Queen Charlotte's Perkins diesel, the crew repaired to Beckman's, where a droll marine-electric parts manager supplied a perfectly satisfactory General Motors starter for about 10% of what the Perkins distributor was quoting.

While the skipper installed the starter, the others explored New Bedford, starting with the city block occupied by Beckman's, a ramshackle treasure-house of antique and modern nautical gear. We passed the Seaman's Bethel, where Melville's whalers attended services, and then crossed the street to the Whaling Museum.

The museum includes the entire skeleton of a 45-ton sperm whale, and a full-sized replica of a whaling ship's fo'c'sl. Here are the ship models, and there are all the tools of the trade -- harpoons, flensing knives, tryworks. The Museum boasts a fabulous collection of scrimshaw -- intricate works of art created by sailors on bone, baleen and ivory, including knife and razor handles, picture frames, jewel boxes, spools and much more.

The most stunning exhibit is the largest ship model in the world -- a complete half-sized replica of a real whaling bark named the Lagoda, 89 feet long, built in 1915-16 for the owner's daughter, Emily Bourne, in memory of her father. The vessel is housed in a lofty exhibit hall also built by Ms. Bourne, and it is complete in every detail -- the catted anchors, the light whaleboats hanging in davits, the clouds of sail, the rope-driven steering gear and much else.

Whaling is New Bedford's heroic myth -- puny men pitting themselves against the monsters of the deep -- and its images and assumptions ring somewhat strangely in a world in which whales cling to survival, while human enterprise has become the most powerful force in the world. It seems odd, too, that so many of the leading figures in this furious world of blood, death and blubber should have been Quakers, who are identified in our day with peace and non-violence and who even then made New Bedford a haven for escaped slaves, a terminus of the Underground Railway.

The ship I really wanted to see in New Bedford had nothing to do with whaling -- and it wasn't in port, either. Built in 1894, the schooner Effie M. Morrissey was named for the sister of her skipper, Clayton Morrissey. Although the Morrisseys lived in Gloucester, they came from Lower East Pubnico, where Cap'n Clayt was born. He became famous as skipper of the Gloucester schooner Henry Ford, which in 1922 unsuccessfully challenged the Bluenose for the International Fishermen's Cup.

In 1926, after 32 years of fishing and freighting, the Effie M. Morrissey was sold to Captain Bob Bartlett, the Newfoundland master who had carried Admiral Robert E. Peary to the North Pole in 1909. Barlett refitted the ship for the Arctic ice, and skippered her on 20 voyages of northern exploration sponsored by organizations like the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian Institution. She once reached within 600 miles of the Pole, and newsreels made the ship and her skipper world-famous.

During World War II, the Morrissey served as a supply vessel for US Arctic bases and for the Soviet port of Murmansk. After Bartlett's death in 1946, she was sold to the Cape Verde Islands, and re-named Ernestina. For the next 30 years, she sailed as a packet boat between Cape Verde and New England, maintaining a link originally established by the whalers, who frequently picked up crew in the Cape Verdes. She was the last sailing ship in regular service to carry immigrants to the United States.

In 1975, she was presented to the United States as a gift by the new Republic of Cape Verde. She now belongs to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts -- and when I was in New Bedford, she was in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, receiving a $4 million refit. I was sorry to miss her, but I was delighted to know that she'll be strong and hardy again, at the age of 114.

She is an international treasure, this stout-hearted wooden ship, born in the nineteenth century and still serving in the twenty-first. Going aboard her remains one of the greatest pleasures I've never had.

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