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A Sail for the Charles W. Morgan

We hope that folks have been following the websites of both the Picton Castle and Mystic Seaport – The Museum of America and the Sea – on this our fourth voyage around the world. One thing we have added on to this voyage in conjunction with Mystic Seaport is to tell stories of square-rigger voyaging today to, in part, glean what has changed and what has stayed much the same between the 19th-century ocean wanderings of the Bark Charles W. Morgan and these world voyages of the Picton Castle. There is so much similar about the ships and the waters sailed that we all thought this would be an interesting exercise in historic interpellation and interpretation. This 1841 wooden sailing whale ship is due to be soon hauled out of the water for a meticulous and fascinating hull restoration that will last three years at Mystic Seaport’s DuPont Preservation Shipyard. Not only will this preserve the Morgan for decades to come, it will also provide unique insights to ancient ship building techniques and methods. I can’t wait to see the old ship out of the water and partially peeled back, it will be fascinating.

As part of studying, considering, and celebrating the voyages of the venerable bark Charles W. Morgan we thought it would be a good thing to give something from the Picton Castle to that wooden sailing whale ship as Mystic Seaport gets ready to give her a massive overhaul. We couldn’t figure out much that we could do from afar that would actually be useful, but then we got thinking about sailmaking. After some discussion by all concerned we decided that the thing to do was to make a brand-new but completely historic hand-made cotton sail for the Morgan—a cotton sail as close as possible to the sails that once drove her along. This would be no great hardship, as we make all our own sails by hand on the decks of the Picton Castle with palm and needle, in much the same way as did the clippers and large square-riggers of the age of sail. This would be a fun project, would require some good research, and the Picton Castle crew could take pride in the results. Maybe we could even bend on and set this sail for a passage to give the canvas some off-shore seatime before turning it over to Mystic Seaport.

After discussing the notion with Sailmaker Gary Adair, with demonstrations leader Mary Kay Berkaw at Mystic Seaport and others, we decided to make an upper-topsail for the Morgan. Gary was very helpful in sorting out some historical detailing and organized plans for us, which were sent to South Africa so that we could begin. Susannah Clark—who sailed in the Picton Castle along the east coast of Africa and home to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, on our first world voyage—has joined us a sailmaker on this voyage after spending a year working for pre-eminent sailmaker Nat Wilson of East Boothbay, Maine, in between sailing in various large schooners. Nat is world recognized as one of the top go-to sailmakers today for traditional sails for schooners and square-riggers, as well as fine yachts.

Once-upon-a-time, most deep-water sailing ships made all their own sails on a regular basis. A sailmaker would have been one of the permanent day-men in a big ship, along with the carpenter, cook, and steward, maybe a donkey-man, too. Qualified Able-Bodied Seamen along with mates and skipper were expected to be close to fair sailmakers themselves as well. The Charles W. Morgan would have kept a sailmaker pretty well employed on her long ocean voyages of years’ durations. But you don’t find sailmakers at sea in ships anymore, except for our little barque.

There is another chapter to this story of sailmaking in the Picton Castle—one that knits things together with Mystic Seaport and the Charles W. Morgan pretty soundly too. The only real reason that we can make sails in the Picton Castle at all is due to Captain Arthur M. Kimberly. Captain Kimberly with his able wife Gloria and only sextant, lead-line and years of know-how sailed their Danish wooden Brigantine Romance for 23 years all around the Caribbean, South Pacific, and twice around the world in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Captain Kimberly, known to his many young crews as “Skipper,” first went to sea in down-east coasting schooners before signing on the Swedish four-masted bark Abraham Rydberg just before WWII. Kimberly was a seaman before the mast in this 3,000 ton cargo-carrying sailing ship. This vessel carried a sailmaker and many of the crew were expected to help seam a sail. Later Kimberly served as mate in tankers in WWII convoys and then moved onto the last three masted cargo schooners in the Mediterranean. In the 1950s he worked in Ted Hood’s first sail loft back when Ted was on the floor. This was also when there were plenty of cotton and hand-made sails around and techniques were still pretty traditional. Dacron was pretty new stuff back then.

The sea called upon Kimberly again when he signed on as mate in the Johnsons’ famous Brigantine YANKEE, which had just been sold. Soon he was the skipper of the YANKEE. There he met his wife and partner, Gloria, and they got married in Tahiti, on what turned out to be the YANKEE’s last world voyage. After leaving their beloved Yankee (which went on to get wrecked at Rarotonga some years later) they made plans to sail their own brigantine on challenging deep sea voyages. This quest had them moving ashore and Captain Kimberly getting work at Mystic Seaport as Chief Rigger for a number of years. (In his time at Mystic, Skipper worked on the rigging of the Morgan quite a bit, finding much of it to be very ancient yet in good condition.)

While ensconced up the Mystic River they searched for the right ship while making plans to build one. Suddenly there came on the market the finest 90-foot brigantine they could imagine. Captain Alan Villiers (who sailed Mystic Seaport’s Joseph Conrad around the world in the mid 1930s) had rigged a perfect mid–19th century brigantine for the filming of James Michener’s epic “Hawaii,” starring Julie Andrews and Max von Sydow. The filming was done and the movie company didn’t want to own or maintain traditional brigantines, so a deal was quickly concluded and the Kimberlys now had their staunch and seaworthy Brigantine Romance. Many young sailors got a good healthy start in ships by sailing in this wonderful ship under a true master-in-sail. And Skipper and Mrs. Kimberly made all their own sails onboard, teaching their crew sailmaking on ocean passages. I served four amazing years in the Romance under Captain Kimberly. My experience rigging and sailmaking in the Romance later earned me a berth in the Danish State Full-rigger Danmark, where one of my first jobs was assistant sailmaker. Of course, that is another story, although the sailmaking ties into this one.

So the Picton Castle crew make all the sails for their ship. Cotton canvas, natural roping, hand laid up and stuck grommets, rope and wire cringles—design, lay out, cutting, and sewing, every inch and stitch by hand. We often find a flat piece of short grass somewhere, maybe an old copra wharf or warehouse on some island somewhere to serve as our “sail-loft.” We have even raced the tide on a nice firm beach to get a sail laid out. Beaches are nice because they are clean and you can make all the sail-making marks on them easily.

For this Morgan sail we wanted to do an especially good and traditional job. Susannah was to be Job Foreman. Ivan Klok and Morgan Davis (a descendent of Charles W. Morgan himself) would be the principal seamers, and other crew would help. I guess that I was “general contractor,” designer and general arbiter of this sail. The sail is almost done now but it all got started in Cape Town, South Africa. There we used the gymnasium of the wonderful Christel House School to do the initial layout to measure and cut the cloths so we could sew them together once we got to sea. Crossing the South Atlantic in pretty good trade winds, Ivan and Morgan stitched away in the sun on deck in a manner that would have been little different from making a sail in the Morgan 150 years ago. Maybe they would have started earlier in the morning than we do. We start at 8 AM, while in the old days daymen would turn to at dawn or 0600 and work until dark. We don’t work quite that hard; maybe we should. The second layout was done on the wharf in St Georges, Grenada, West Indies. The second layout of the sail is where we actually make the precise cuts out of the big seamed-up patch of canvas that will result in a sail. Then all the reinforcing patches and tabling get sewn on and roped along the edge as well. And there are lots of grommets to sew in.

This upper topsail for the Charles W. Morgan is 31′ 4″ on the head, 13′ 5″ in the hoist and 37′ 2″ along the foot. It is made of #4 cotton canvas seamed up of 25-inch-wide cloths laid out vertically. The finished sail is 450 square feet and is a little bit smaller than the Picton Castle‘s upper topsail. It has a single reef band about 2/5 of the way down from the head, based on old photos of the Morgan under sail. The sail has no provision for buntlines as we could not see any in the old pictures, which were pretty clear. But it does have a sunburn patch along the head on the after side that acts much like a sail cover when the sail is furled. This is a traditional technique that may or may not have been universal, certainly a good thing. It is roped with 7/8″ high-quality tarred manila. Head cringles are laid up of hemp and clew cringles are galvanized iron rings with galvanized steel thimbles. The head-earrings (which are the ropes at the head of the sail to stretch it and lash the upper corners to the yard-arms) are made of hemp as well. All the grommets are hand made of waxed and tarred marlin and sewn in along the head to seize the sail to the jack-stay that runs along the top of the upper-topsail yard. It will have over 200 man-hours in it before we are finished and could cost over $12,000 if contracted for at commercial rates. We have gone to a little more trouble than usual to keep this sail clean but it will not get to the Morgan without a few deck and crew stains. Susannah and her sail-making gang have done a superlative job, and we hope that this sail will set on the Charles W. Morgan‘s upper topsail for years to come as that ship introduces new generations to America and the sea. Maybe we will bend it for the passage from Bermuda to Lunenburg to stretch it out a bit and baptize it, so to speak.

If I don’t mention that we also make our own spars and rigging onboard the carpenters and riggers will get their noses out of joint. Logan is just now swinging an adz to make a new fore royal yard from a piece of spruce we have been carrying around for years just for this purpose. And with Billy Campbell at the fore the riggers have replaced most of the heavy wire seizings that have been holding the lower standing rigging together for the last ten years; this in order to overhaul and re-serve the heavy shrouds themselves. And so forth.

Captain Dan Moreland at helm on way to Fernando
Chelsie wire splicing on the way to Cape Town
Ivan sewing sail on the way to Fernando
Logan shapes a new royal yard with an adze.
Morgan sewing grommets in on the way to Fernando
Morgan sewing sail on way to Fernando
PICTON CASTLE under sail, bound for Mauritius
Replacing the wire seizings
Sporting new stuns ls, PICTON CASTLE heads for Bali.
Stuns ls help catch the light airs.
Under sail with new stuns ls on the way to Bali.
Wire seizings

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