Astronomy and Astrophysics Professor Demonstrates Use of Period Navigational Tools

July 21, 2014
sunrise behing rigging of whaling ship Charles W. Morgan

Wellesley's Louise Sherwood McDowell and Sarah Frances Whiting Professor of Astrophysics, Professor of Astronomy, and Dean of Academic Affairs Dick French captured this sunrise on the whaling ship Charles W. Morgan. First built in 1841, and beautifully restored to sailing condition, the vessel is mid-way through its 38th voyage—from its home port of Mystic, Conn., to Boston and back.

French was aboard ship for a full day as a “Voyager,” one of a handful selected for each leg of the trip to participate in the journey. On board with fellow Voyager artists, videographers, and historians, French's project was to revive the lost art of celestial navigation as part of the voyage. Using historical navigational instruments from Wellesley College’s Whitin Observatory and the tools of navigation as used at the time of the Charles W. Morgan’s early voyages, he determined the ship’s latitude and longitude from observations of the Moon, Mars, and the Sun with octant, sextant, and quintant.

whale breaches near whaling rowboatHis leg of the journey sailed out of Provincetown to the nearby Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. He reports that “the ship was surrounded by whales at close quarters, and it was a thrill to launch a whaleboat to follow the whales, the crew with cameras rather than harpoons. It was magnificent to be under full sail on a historic ship, to think about the 37 previous voyages during which the Charles W. Morgan had literally spanned the globe many times, and to see whales so nearby.”

French learned of the opportunity to propose to sail on the Charles W. Morgan from a former student, who remembered his many allusions to Moby-Dick in his classes and thought that he might be interested in applying. “I’m grateful for this wonderful opportunity to sail on board a ship nearly identical to the ship Herman Melville sailed to the Pacific, and to use a historical octant for navigation that Ahab would have used. In the modern era of GPS, we’ve forgotten the vulnerable feeling of being lost and having to depend on our knowledge of the heavens to tell us where we are.”

The Charles W. Morgan is docked alongside the USS Constitution in Boston Harbor. The last wooden whaleship in the world, it will be open to the public (free admission) at the Boston National Historical Park at the Charlestown Navy Yard through July 22, 2014; it will set sail for the Massachusetts Maritime Academy on July 23, and be open to the public there July 26 and 27, coinciding with the centennial celebration of the Cape Cod Canal. The ship will return to Mystic Seaport on August 9.

There's another, more tangential Wellesley connection to this historic boat. According to The Boston Globe, it was the son of Hetty Green—the benefactor for whom Green Hall is named—who used some of his inheritance to purchase the Morgan. He bought it essentially as a lawn ornament, but that prevented it from being junked after its retirement.

More News Coverage

The Boston Globe: History Comes to Life Aboard the Charles W. Morgan

The Hartford Courant: Whale Sightings from the Charles W. Morgan

Cape and Islands NPR: New Bedford Celebrates the Return of the Charles W. Morgan

The Day: Morgan in Good Company During Visit to Boston

Photos: Dick French (sunrise), Mystic Seaport (whale & rowboat)