In New England: Whaling history comes alive at Mystic Seaport

Stephen Jermanok

"Thar she blows! Thar she blows!" was the cry from Captain Ahab. "Man the boats," he yelled. I jumped to my feet, ready to do battle with the Great White, but the rest of my hapless crew just sat there. It was then I remembered that I was not aboard the Pequod, and that Captain Ahab was actually an actor reading from Herman Melville's epic, ``Moby Dick,'' in a 24-hour readathon.

The readathon is held annually near the author's birthday (this year July 31 to Aug. 1) on the Charles W. Morgan at Connecticut's Mystic Seaport (888-9SEAPORT; www.mysticseaport.org).

Folks are still intrigued with a profession where men would be at sea for two to five years, filling oak casks with oil from their latest whale kill. And, fortunately, Mystic is home to the Charles W. Morgan, the only remaining American whaler. Since the whaler will be undergoing a three-year overhaul beginning in November, now is the time to get on board.

Built in 1841, the Morgan worked a remarkable 80 years when most ships had a sea life of 20 years. About 100 feet long, she had the capacity to hold 3,000 barrels of oil from 50 to 70 whales. Docked on the Mystic River, the Morgan's black hull and white sails still look strong enough to navigate the open waters -- instead she is open to visitors daily and occasionally does sunset cruises.

Below deck, between the spacious captain's quarters in the back of boat and the crew's cramped bunks in the fo'c'sle, is the blubber room. Blubber was cut and stacked in 4-foot-long pieces, waiting to be thrown into an oven on the upper deck called the tryworks. This brick fireplace burned night and day until every drop of oil was rendered ("trying out"), covering the ship and all the sailors in a thick black cloud of oily, acrid smoke.

With these facts told to me in lurid detail by a Morgan guide as we rested against the boat's tryworks, I was beginning to feel a little clammy. Fortunately, on terra firma you can visit Mystic Seaport's re-creation of a working 19th-century sailing village with all the requisite shops, and an opportunity to cool off with an old-fashioned root beer, no blubber in sight.

Find more travel features and the Get Away with Fran blog at www.wickedlocal.com/getaway.

WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT WHALING?

“Moby-Dick” is THE book to read if you want to be entertained by a great story and to you want to learn about whaling. For those unfamiliar with Herman Melville’s novel, here’s a quick look at it:

The story tells the adventures of the wandering sailor Ishmael and his voyage on the whaling ship Pequod, commanded by Captain Ahab. Ishmael soon learns that Ahab seeks one specific whale, Moby-Dick, a white whale of tremendous size and ferocity. In a previous encounter, the whale destroyed Ahab's boat and bit off his leg, and Ahab intends to exact revenge. Besides the aforementioned characters, other famous ones include Queequeg and Starbuck (whom the Starbucks coffee chain was named after).