Published June 09. 2014 4:00AM Updated June 09. 2014 1:18PM
When Hugh Herbert climbed aboard the Charles W. Morgan in 1941, he said he found the whaling ship much as its last crew had left it.
In the captain's cabin, papers remained in the desk. There were harpoons on deck along with the huge steel cauldrons that were once used to melt blubber down to oil. Green algae clung to the side of the hull.
For Herbert, a boy who had read Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" and enjoyed fishing and sea life, it was fascinating to roam the ship and see firsthand what he had read about.
"I remember it was exciting," the 86-year-old Herbert said recently at his East Lyme home. "We ran all over the boat. We went from top to bottom,stemto stern, exploring all the nooks and crannies."
A 14-year-old Sea Scout from Mystic, Herbert had joined seven other scouts, including his close pal, Walter Allyn, on the whaling ship as it was moved from New London to its new home at the future Mystic Seaport on the last leg of its trip from New Bedford, Mass. It had been unable to go directly to the museum because a dredge had blocked the channel to the Mystic River.
Herbert scrambled up the rigging along with Allyn and even climbed up to the masthead to see if he could catch a glimpse of his house while the ship passed. He looked through the brass telescope in the captain's cabin to glimpse the shoreline.
Within the captain's cabin, he made a discovery when he spotted a large curved settee covered with thick, black horsehide cushions. Growing up during the Great Depression, Herbert had acquired the habit of picking up cushions and peering underneath them to see if anyone had dropped a coin.
He found more than coins on the Morgan. When he lifted up the cushion, he found a 12-inch-by-8 inch opening covered with a piece of wood. When he opened it up, there was the captain's liquor cabinet with eight bottles filled with wine and rum. (On a later visit to the ship in Mystic, he pointed out the opening to his tour guide, but found that the bottles had been discovered and were gone).
While the experience only lasted a day, Herbert still remembers the details of ship life aboard the Morgan, which he said confirmed the facts he had picked up in books.
He said he saw the racks of harpoons on deck and could visualize how sailors used to harpoon whales. They would chop the whale meat on deck, and then use two huge cauldrons, at least 4 feet in diameter, to melt blubber, during the time when whale oil was used in lamps.
The captain's bed had gimbals, so when the ship swayed from side to side during its journey, the bed would remain level.
He and Allyn also climbed into the ship's wooden bunks, but found them so small that they could barely fit and surmised people tended to be smaller back then.
"We could barely make it," he said.
Mystic Seaport spokesman Dan McFadden said that in 1941, a Sea Scout leader from Noank had heard about the whaler's layover in New London. His friend, Carl Cutler, co-founder and head of the Marine Historical Association, now Mystic Seaport, agreed to let some of his scouts on board for the trip into Mystic. The Morgan had ended its 80-year whaling career in 1921.
Herbert, who went on to serve in the Navy and enroll at the University of Connecticut, later took his future wife, Janet, for a tour of the Morgan at Mystic Seaport on one of their first dates.
The two, who met at a college dance, raised three daughters together. Herbert, an engineer, traveled the world with his family as part of his job and retired to Costa Rica, but found his way back to southeastern Connecticut.
He would entertain his three children by telling them tales of growing up as a mischievous boy running around Mystic, said his daughter, Patricia. Herbert had joined the Sea Scouts, a nautical version of the Boy Scouts, when he was 12. It was a time when he would take his row boat onto the river and help his friend Allyn with the fishing boats his family built.
Herbert said his family has carried on his spirit of adventure. His grandson, Willie O'Leary, is now a first mate on a tugboat in the Mediterranean.
Herbert called the trip on the Morgan a "once in a lifetime" opportunity and said he supported preserving the ship for future generations.
"The Morgan's had quite a history," said Janet. "It's nice that they're preserving it, because it's something you'll never see again."
Herbert, who traveled the world as an adult, said the trip helped nurture his sense of adventure.
"I've always sought adventure," he said.