Building a whaleboat

by Alison Shaw

I’M CLOSE TO COMPLETING a new project chronicling the construction of a whaleboat for the Charles W. Morgan, America’s last surviving wooden whaleship, at Gannon and Benjamin Boat Yard in Vineyard Haven. This past December I happened to wander into the boatshed on the harbor, and casually asked what they were working on. When Nat Benjamin said “a whaleboat,” I could hardly believe my ears. A whaleboat?

My timing couldn’t have been better, since work on the boat had only just begun, and the only visible signs of it were a bunch of lines and markings (otherwise known as lofting) on the floor of the shed, as well as the beginnings of what would comprise the backbone of the whaleboat. I knew, without a moment’s hesitation, that I had to document this project.

I have a long history of photographing boatbuilding projects at Gannon and Benjamin, dating back to 1995-96 when I photographed the construction of the 24-foot wooden sloop Maybe Baby for Bill Graham of West Tisbury. Two years later I began photographing the construction of the 60-foot schooner Rebecca, which took nearly four years to complete. In 2010, we produced the book Schooner about the process, which was written by Tom Dunlop, designed by my partner Sue, and published by Vineyard Stories. It never occurred to me that yet another boat building project at Gannon and Benjamin would ever capture my imagination, to the extent that I couldn’t resist starting the photographic process over again.

So why this passion of mine for a whaleboat in particular? It probably goes back to my first job as an 11-year-old summer kid in Edgartown. I remember my grandparents taking me to the Dukes County Historical Society and introducing me to Margaret Chatterton, Director of the society. She hired me to work the lunch shift at the Thomas Cooke House – my job was to give tours of the house to visitors, so I had to become familiar with the contents of the house and the history of the island. One of my favorite rooms in the Cooke House was the one devoted to the whaling history of the Vineyard. Among other things, there was a model of a Nantucket sleighride, portraits of serious looking whaling masters, a big hunk of baleen, an elaborate sailor’s valentine, and a tribute to the wives and children who also went to sea. My interest in whaling carried on through my many summers of working at the museum, followed by a “real” job as their archivist after graduating from college.

Back to the story of the Charles W. Morgan and the building of a whaleboat. What makes the Morgan so important is that it is the last surviving wooden whale ship from the great days of whaling. She’s also the oldest American commercial vessel still in existence, and in 1967 was designated a National Historic Landmark. And what makes the Morgan so interesting to me as a Vineyarder are its many connections to the island. The Morgan was built in New Bedford in 1841 by the Hillman family, who were originally from Chilmark. She made 37 voyages, under the command of 20 different captains, before retiring in 1921. Seven of her masters hailed from the Vineyard, including her last, Captain George Fred Tilton of Chilmark, who served as her port captain. Since 1941 she has been on display and open to the public at Mystic Seaport. The Morgan has been undergoing a complete multimillion restoration begun in the fall of 2008, and is scheduled to be re-launched in July of this year. What will be her 38th voyage is scheduled for 2014, and includes visits to historic New England ports including Vineyard Haven!

The Morgan will be carrying seven whaleboats. Each of these seven boats is being privately funded and built by one of seven different boat builders. Gannon and Benjamin Boat Yard, not surprisingly, was invited to build one of the whaleboats.

Ginny Jones at G&B kindly kept me up to date on both the progress of the whaleboat as well as filling me in on the history of the Morgan. She reported that Captain Bob Douglas, master of the topsail schooner Shenandoah, was inquiring as to what kind of whaleboat they were building. Apparently, it is patterned on the many whaleboats built by the Beetle Company in New Bedford. Bob noted that the company had not just patterns, but piles of pre-cut spare parts. This meant that in the heyday of whaling, if someone asked for a whaleboat, a team could build one in a day!

As for the photos, my self-assigned job has been to document the process, and bring my own visual aesthetic to the photos. I couldn’t ask for better raw material to work with – the wood, the fittings, the tools and the cluttered setting of the boat building shed on the harbor. Not to mention that the boat builders themselves look like they could be from central casting, with their rugged good looks, hand-knit fishermens’ sweaters, and well-worn work boots and gloves (thank you in particular to Nat Benjamin, and young Nat Quinn). The lines of the whaleboat as it evolved are sturdy and utilitarian, yet classic and graceful. The outer shed where the boat was built is enclosed on one side by translucent plastic, so it’s like being inside a huge soft box – plenty of beautiful light. Then, inside the inner sanctum of the shop, it’s dark with aged wood punctuated by vintage machinery and an old woodstove. It’s lit with a few bare bulbs and some strong directional light pouring through a single window on the east side of the building – just gorgeous, making my job easy.

All that’s left to do are a few odds and ends and perhaps a final coat of paint. The launch is scheduled for Saturday, June 15, 2013 at 4pm. Not long after, she’ll be on her way to Mystic in time for the Wooden Boat Show the end of June. The story of her construction, launch, and journey to her new home on-board the Charles W. Morgan, will be published in Martha’s Vineyard Magazine, along with a story by long-time collaborator Tom Dunlop.

7 Responses

  1. Merdis says:

    Hi Allison beautifully inspirational as always.

  2. Jen Sayre says:

    Alison, thanks for documenting this historic event. I hope to see it more in depth later. In a book perhaps? I’m sorry to miss the launch as well as the visit this summer from the Charles W. Morgan.

  3. Gail Rodney says:

    How fortunate you wandered in! I will keep checking your blog for more accounts of your initiatives, Alison!

  4. Brings back fond memories of G&B, a place which inspired so much of what I do. Thanks!

  5. Jerry says:

    Beautiful to look at and a lost art, how did they seal these boats in the old days? Thanks

  6. Barbara Schwartz says:

    Alison, will these photos be available at some time. We are building a small display area behind the Sag Harbor Historical Society for our collection of tools from the William Cooper Whaleboat Shop (1800’s).we are looking for some media associated with whaleboat building. Do you know of a video showing the building of a boat?

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