Rockland's Kip Files Takes the Helm of the Last Wooden Whaling Ship
Thursday, November 14, 2013 4:47 AM
Kip Files, co-owner and captain of the Rockland-based three-masted schooner Victory Chimes, has been hired by Mystic Seaport as the new captain of the last wooden whaling ship in the world, the Charles W. Morgan, a 113-foot square-rigger that carried 13,000 square feet of sail on three masts in full rig and a crew of 35 during its heyday in the 1840s, when it sailed the world in search of whale blubber and baleen.
Captain Kip Files in front of the Charles W. Morgan on his first day at work at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut on Monday, November 11. Inset: The Charles W. Morgan under way in a historic photo - Photos: Mystic Seaport
Files started his new job on Monday.
The five-year restoration of the Morgan was undertaken at the Henry B. duPont Preservation Shipyard at Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut, where the Morgan has been since the 1960s. The flagship of Mystic Seaport, the Morgan was relaunched as a functioning sailing ship in July of this year. She will become a roving historical exhibit next summer.
Built in New Bedford in 1841, the Morgan is the last survivor of the American whaling fleet that was 2,700 strong.
From 1841 until 1921 the Morgan undertook 37 voyages, most lasting three years or more. Her longest voyage was five years. Known as a lucky ship because she survived Arctic ice, cannibals, storms, hurricanes, and passages around the notoriously dangerous Cape Horn, the Morgan is now America's oldest commercial ship still afloat. Only the USS Constitution is older.
Files, who has been a master mariner on traditional wooden vessels since the 1970s, has firsthand knowledge of traditional square-riggers and the experience to sail and maintain them, according to the museum staff.
Files said he heard about the renovation of the whaling ship about four years ago, near the start of the project, and expressed interest in being involved at that time.
"The square rig goes side to side, not fore and aft like the Maine schooners do," said Files on his first day as the Morgan's captain. His experience operating square-riggers was a main reason Mystic Seaport was interested in hiring Files. Files himself said operating the vessel is one thing, but that he is equally fascinated with how the boat was built and the technology used at the time; skills that have now largely died out.
"In the 1940s you had welders and steel," he said. "In the 1840s it was a whole different type of skill that was needed."
And as the industrial revolution proceeded, whale oil lamps and baleen for corsets also went the way of the whaling ship.
"The Charles W. Morgan is the pinnacle of her type: she has a double sawn frame, with planking inside and outside and tree nails and iron. It doesn't rust and it's very strong construction," he said. The construction is in some ways analogous to the post-and-beam construction of barns and churches that were held together with wooden pegs and complicated trusses that were no longer necessary when iron and steel replaced them to fasten one piece of wood to another.
Captain Files plans to hire a professional crew of 12 to 15 for a port-hopping voyage from Long Island to Boston and back beginning next summer. Files said the whaling ship is currently in the best shape of her life after the Mystic Seaport restoration and that moving her from place to place is part of the plan.
"She was never designed to sit at the dock," said Files. "She's designed to be under way. This is a huge thing, taking her off the dock, and an opportunity to not just talk about American history in the pre-industrial age before the Civil War, but to show it."
A trip to the whaling grounds, then?
Nothing too rough for this prize, he said. The goal is to keep her, he said, not test her.
The ship's role will be to engage coastal communities with their maritime heritage and with changing perceptions about whales and whale conservation. Plenty of time will also be spent dock-side, where the Charles W. Morgan, a living historical exhibit, will be used to advance education and historical interpretation.