Published May 17. 2014 4:00AM Updated May 17. 2014 1:56PM
Mystic - Mystic Seaport had hit financial rock bottom when the idea was floated to take the historic whaler Charles W. Morgan back to sea.
It was the winter of 2009 and the Seaport's sizeable endowment of almost $50 million had been nearly halved by the Great Recession, curtailing spending at the maritime museum.
"You know the cliche of not having two nickels to rub together was almost true," said Seaport President Stephen C. White, explaining how the museum's portfolio had lost more than 40 percent of its value when the Dow Jones industrial average collapsed below 7,000 in March 2009.
The Seaport's annual spending policy was 5 percent of the endowment's value, and when the market took its free fall, the revenue spigot was closed.
"We virtually could not take any money out of our endowment because all that was left was permanently restricted," said White, explaining how the Seaport reacted by looking for ways to cut expenses by 25 percent. "It was hard, and it was very difficult and very negative," said the 61-year-old educator and former private-school headmaster who had just assumed the helm of the Seaport two months before.
But the financial woes would also create an opportunity to consider new ideas. As Seaport leaders met to address the financial concerns, they also explored new and different possibilities.
"We were looking for inspiration," said White, who has made two trans-Atlantic crossings on a sloop from Connecticut. "And we were asking, 'What can change? Is there something?' While we were getting smaller, we didn't want to think smaller. ... What could be a game changer? ... What are the possibilities? Let's be creative, not just hang our heads. So that's the spirit of how these ideas came to be."
One idea, which White is credited with advancing, was to consider taking the Morgan back to sea 173 years after it was launched in New Bedford, Mass. The idea was considered and eventually fully realized: The Morgan is scheduled to leave Mystic at 9:15 this morning and arrive this afternoon in New London, where it will stay for about a month before leaving for a tour of other New England ports.
'If not, why not?'
The ship, a major attraction at the Seaport since 1941 and a National Historic Landmark, was in the early stages of a multimillion-dollar restoration when White first considered taking her back to sea. Behind closed doors, he started nudging the idea forward by asking questions.
"The Morgan is being restored from the water line to the keel, so she'll be stronger than she's been in a century. So, would we consider taking her down the river? And if not, why not? And if not now, when?" is how White recalls the early discussion.
"That sort of became our mantra," he added.
White met privately with two highly respected Seaport insiders and shared the idea with them. "And both of them literally got teary-eyed," he said. "And they leaned forward and said, 'Really? Is that possible?'
"'Well, I don't know if it's possible," White replied, "but don't you think we should consider it?'"
For decades the Seaport had been telling visitors that the Morgan was no longer seaworthy. But with the restoration that might change, White realized. "If her integrity has been restored, why wouldn't you let the ship do what it was intended to do, which is sail?" he asked.
That May, four months after he arrived, White broached the idea with the museum's board of trustees. By that time he'd gotten enough internal agreement that returning the Morgan to sea was not an irresponsible notion. And, he said, it fit perfectly with the museum's new "game changer" thinking.
"We were encouraging ourselves to think differently during this deep recessionary time," he said. "You can't just be the same old thing. You have to ask, are there things we can do differently?"
The trustees told White to take four months and do a thorough feasibility study of taking the historic whaler back out on the water. White and his team at the Seaport discussed and studied the idea from every facet and angle, met with regulatory bodies, debated the ethics of it and even made sure it was logistically possible to get the Morgan down the Mystic River.
In September 2009 the museum's trustees, in a carefully worded unanimous decision, voted "To continue with the planning to take the Morgan back to sea."
But despite the "continue with the planning" phrasing, the vote was just what the Seaport needed at the time.
"What it did in those recessionary months that turned into years, is it pulled together the entire museum around this single concept," said White.
He remembers clearly the day that he shared the plan with employees at a staff meeting.
"There was this visceral response - it was gasps of 'wow,' 'really,' 'you're kidding,'" he said. "And from that moment that we shared with each other that this is what we're planning to do, it was a commitment to do it."
Taking her home
As more people embraced the idea, the itinerary of the Morgan's 38th voyage grew.
"The genesis of the idea was, let's take the Morgan down the river and back," White recalled. "If we do nothing else, let's just take her down the river. And then it was, well, if we're gonna go down river, we need to go to New London, one of the top five whaling ports in the country. Why wouldn't we go to New London?
"And then, if we're going to go to New London, we have to go to New Bedford. We have to take her home."
Among other stops on the summertime voyage will be the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off Cape Cod, where White said the Morgan "will go to be among the whales."
The ship will be an ambassador not of its 19th century whaling history, but of what America did in the latter part of the 20th century to protect whales and allow their populations to grow again, said White.
"What we like to say is that the Morgan is leaving with an empty hold, and instead of returning with a hold full of oil, she's returning with a hold full of knowledge," he said.
' ... alive again'
White said that when the Morgan slips away from the dock at the Seaport today, it will hit him and the dedicated staff that she's really going back to sea. "That's when we're going to say, 'Wow, it's really happening,'" he said.
And there's no second-guessing on White's part.
"The Morgan is a tremendous springboard for sure, and we hope it's the tide that raises the rest of our boats, that it's a game changer," he said. "And I'm confident it will be."
"When you do bold, it inspires other people to be bold, it gets contagious," said White, shrugging off a comment that he gets the credit for making the Morgan's return to the sea a reality. "I just asked some questions," he said, adding that when it's all over and the Morgan is back at Chubbs Wharf where she has rested for decades, "... she will be pretty proud, and we will be, too."
White and everyone else at the Seaport is ready for the historic voyage.
"It's the right thing to do," he said. "It's what a great museum, a leading museum like the Mystic Seaport, must do if we are to help the public understand our maritime history as fully and completely as they should.
"We were presented with this opportunity, and we really must seize it. The easy thing to do would be to take her back to Chubbs Wharf. She's really good at that, and we're really good at interpreting her in that way, but we must have the courage to complete this big idea."
The creative thinking in hard fiscal times has helped the Seaport to thrive.
"We've learned to live with less, but we're not trying to think small, we're trying to think big," White said. "We have to do things that inspire people to become members, inspire people to come and visit, and inspire people to be philanthropically supportive."
Standing on shore and gazing out on the Morgan, White said the six-year, $12 million project has been invigorating.
"We're doing the right thing. Some who were doubters then are believers now," he said. "We've gone to great lengths to make it safe.
"She's not a static object and she's going to be alive again."