(Watch our video about the Lake Champlaine Maritime Museum by clicking here.)
FERRISBURGH — Ten area students will be participating in a whale of a project at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum (LCMM) this winter.
Those students, with the county’s Diversified Occupations Program, will help the LCMM faithfully reproduce a 27-foot-long whaling boat — one of 10 that will be stowed aboard the Charles W. Morgan. First launched in 1841 and currently docked at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, the Morgan is the world’s last wooden whaling ship and America’s oldest existing commercial vessel. She’s been inactive for many decades, under the care of The Museum of America and the Sea at Mystic Seaport since 1941. The museum has spent the past four years leading a $7 million renovation effort to make the Morgan seaworthy again for a historic tour, much like the LCMM’s regular Lake Champlain/Hudson River public outreach voyages with the Lois McClure, a full-scale replica of an 1862-class sailing canal boat.
While Lake Champlain is of course devoid of gargantuan swimming mammals (with apologies to “Champ” theorists), LCMM Co-director Erick Tichonuk didn’t need a lot of convincing from the Museum of America when officials there contacted him with the whaling boat idea. The museum had also contacted other maritime museums to fill out the 10-boat order.
“It is a unique opportunity for the students and is very special for us,” Tichonuk said of the project, to be led by Nick Patch, the LCMM’s lead boat builder. “It is an opportunity for us to be put on a much more national stage.”
And Tichonuk reasoned that the LCMM’s seasoned staff was more than capable of managing construction of a whaling boat. After all, the staff has for the past 14 years helped Addison County students build longboats — rowing gigs that range from 25 to 32 feet in length. Participating students spend five months on the project, from selection of the timber to launch.
The whaling boat will bring a new design to the drawing board and add a new educational component to the exercise, according to Tichonuk.
Students will learn about the Morgan, which made 37 whaling voyages — primarily out of New Bedford, Mass. — during her 80 years of service. Her maiden voyage began on Sept. 6, 1841. It lasted more than three years, taking her across the Pacific Ocean. The Morgan’s primary target: sperm whales, prized for their meat, oil and blubber.
Tichonuk explained that the Morgan would launch its smaller whaling boats, powered with oars and sails, to stalk and harpoon a whale after it had been spotted. A successful harpooning led to what mariners would call a “Nantucket sleigh ride,” with the whale dragging the boat of hunters sometimes vast distances before it tired and expired. Sailors on the whaling boats would begin to break down the whale blubber in slabs that could then be offloaded onto the Morgan for storage. On deck, then fat was rendered into oil that — until the advent of petroleum-based products and electricity — was used to fuel everything from lighthouses to reading lamps.
“It was the embodiment of what the whaling experience was like in America,” Tichonuk said.
But he stressed the students, and those who come to see the whaling ship under construction as part of a new LCMM whaling exhibit, will also learn the negatives of an industry that once placed certain whale species in danger of extinction. The International Whaling Commission declared a ban on commercial whaling 28 years ago. It continues in a limited fashion illegally, or under special permit, largely to support the needs of indigenous peoples.
“(The project) also provides an opportunity to reflect on what was also really a catastrophic time in our history for our fellow mammals on this planet,” Tichonuk said. “It’s an opportunity to discuss behavior, cultural norms and shifting beliefs and philosophies over time. That lesson is very important. Conservation and stewardship of our planet is going to be one of the undertones of what we present here.”
Patch and other LCMM officials have hung plans for the whaling boat in the workshop in which it will be built. The keel, made of white oak, has already been laid in place. Project organizers are talking to a local sawyer about providing northern white cedar as the primary wood in construction, according to Tichonuk.
Participating students will work on the boat four days a week during the winter. They will visit Mystic Seaport twice to gain extra knowledge about the project. They will also train on rowing machines for the eventual launch of the whaling boat, which will feature a colored stripe to differentiate it from its companions in the Morgan fleet.
Plans call for the Morgan to be launched for a trial run at around 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, July 21, at Mystic Seaport. The event will simulcast on a big screen at the LCMM as part of “A Whale of a Day” events at the museum that will see the official launch of its four-panel exhibit. Along with the whaling boat work site, the exhibit features a whale jawbone, ribs and vertebrae on loan from New Bedford Whaling Museum.
The Diversified Occupations students will officially begin working on the project in January, in anticipation of completing it in time for what is being billed as the Morgan’s “38th voyage” that will take it to five New England ports next summer.
Tichonuk said it will cost $140,000 to build the whaling boat, which will become a permanent part of the Morgan. Museum officials need to raise another $90,000 to cover project costs. Anyone interested in pitching in can call the LCMM at 475-2022.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]