Published June 07. 2014 4:00AM Updated June 07. 2014 8:55AM
New London - "Big and tubby" is how Sean Bercaw, the second mate for the Charles W. Morgan's historic 38th Voyage, describes the 460-ton, 173-year-old square-rigger.
"Not in a bad way," said Bercaw. "She was a whaleship, and she was built to carry bulk. She'd carry up to 90,000 gallons of oil" back to her homeport during her whaling days.
A former captain of the Amistad, Bercaw believes that when the 22 sails are set on the Morgan today and the oldest commercial ship still afloat in the country freely sails again for the first time in almost a century, she'll move pretty nimbly.
"She's leaner below the water line than you'd think," said Bercaw, 53, of Falmouth, Mass. "I think she'll move more agilely than a lot of people would think. If she was truly ungainly and cumbersome, they would not have sailed her for 80 years. If she was a dog, they would not have sailed her all around the world."
Today's shakedown cruise will provide the first tangible evidence for the Mystic Seaport, owner of the Morgan for the past 73 years, of how the 113-foot vessel handles in open water.
If all goes as planned, the Morgan will shove off from New London's City Pier at 9:30 a.m. to commence sea trials in Fishers Island Sound as it prepares for a tour of New England ports that is scheduled to begin June 14. It will be the first time under sail since the Morgan's working days ended in the early 1920s.
Capt. Kip Files said if the wind is just right - "if there's a northerly, we'll sail her out from the dock" - but it's more likely that the ship will be assisted by a tugboat to get away from the pier and down the river.
"There's nobody alive today who has seen her sail or sailed on her," said Files, 62, explaining that everyone closely involved in the Morgan restoration/38th Voyage project is anxious to see how she moves.
Like his second mate, Bercaw, Files has seen the Morgan out of the water and, judging from her lines, believes "she will sail better than we think she will."
"It will be fun," he said of the shakedown cruise. "The biggest challenge will be seeing how she handles in different conditions and how she maneuvers under sail configurations."
For Files, who owns his own 132-foot, three-masted schooner Victory Chimes in Rockland, Maine, the primary concern is keeping the Morgan's crew and the ship itself - it is the last wooden whaler out of a fleet that once numbered more than 2,700 vessels - out of harm's way.
"Yes, this is a huge historic event, but that's different from sailing her," said Files. "The sailing it, the sailing event itself, is like flying an antique airplane. You do it, you focus on safety, and later you think about how the ride was."
The 15-member crew was chosen from "a huge number of applications," said Files, and "are all trained, some licensed professionals."
Crew members are not only physically strong, but are seasoned or experienced sailors with good people skills, said the captain. "It's not just that they can sail, but they need to do the mission that the Mystic Seaport wants us to do. They have to like people and be able to communicate and talk," he said.
'Sign me up'
Since May 17, when the Morgan was towed from its decades-long home at the Mystic Seaport to downtown New London, ballast has been added and the crew has been working 12-hour days to rig the boat. There's more than a mile of cordage on the whaleship, and when every sail is set, the Morgan sails under 13,000 square feet of canvas.
Chief mate Sam Sikkema of Leander, Texas, said that for the past three weeks the crew has been "doing everything that makes the ship go with wind power," positioning cables, wires, blocks and sails. Coordinating all of that has been a challenge, he said, especially because at times the Morgan has been open to visitors.
But like the rest of the crew, Sikkema, 26, said that when he heard about the plan to sail the Morgan, he knew he wanted to be on board. "It's one of the most significant maritime events in my lifetime," he said. "I can't imagine something like this coming around again."
Julianne "Juls" Johnson, 55, of Mystic, who was hired as provisioner and cook for the voyage, said she couldn't be happier. "When I heard about this, I didn't even have to think about it. 'Sign me up,' I said. It's a moment in history," she said.
When Johnson found out she got the job, she admits being overwhelmed with emotions. "I got all choked up," she said. "This is such an opportunity to be part of something so special."
Johnson, who has cooked on other vessels, will not be cooking on the Morgan's old wood stove - she'll have electricity and two stove-top griddles, a crock pot and an electric frying pan. And among the crew, she will be catering to a vegetarian, a vegan, and two members who are gluten-free.
Deckhand Dana Mancinelli, who started sailing on the U.S. Coast Guard barque Eagle when she was a student there in 1994, is now the third mate on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Okeanos Explorer. She filled out her Morgan crew application electronically and emailed it in while working off the North Carolina shore.
"I just wanted to be part of this amazing opportunity," said the native of New Fairfield, explaining that she will use up all of her leave time to fulfil the 38th Voyage commitment. "This is how I'm spending my vacation, on a tar-covered cruise ship."
'To feel her alive'
It's a small community that sails and crews on tall ships and square rigs, and for that reason, a number of the Morgan's crew members have worked together in the past, or at least know of one another.
Third mate Roxanne "Rocky" Hadler worked as a college registrar in Texas for 28 years before retiring and taking up tall ships in 2005.
"We're like a family," she said. "There's a camaraderie. You become very tight with the people you work with."
Like all the others, Hadler said she very much wanted to be a part of the Morgan's crew. "Everyone in the tall-ship community is so excited about this," she said. "I can't even imagine ... to feel her alive, to feel the wind in her sails."
Between ships, the 61-year-old Hadler makes her home in Houston.
Joee Patterson, 33, another deckhand, said when the sails are first unfurled it will be a whirlwind. "There will be a frenzy of activity, and the focus will be on executing. But then, I think it will feel amazing," she said.
When her sailing friends learned she was going to be a member of the Morgan's crew, they initiated an online book club and all read and discussed "Moby Dick."
"In the circles I run in, this is a very big deal," Patterson said.
Today is Dan Roche's 24th birthday, and the deckhand wouldn't want to be anywhere else. "It will be simply amazing to get this moving again," he said, standing on the deck of the Morgan. "And with sea trials, we'll be fine-tuning and getting everything just right. But once everything is set, that one moment when we're not all running around, that will be pretty great."
The crew members all agree that it will be intense once the sails are set and the captain and mates start calling out orders. But they also believe there will come a moment when they'll be able to experience the roll of the ship, the wind in the sails, and the solemnity of the moment.
"Knowing that no one today has ever seen her sail, and that I'll be hauling a line to make her sail ... It's so big, it humbles you," said Mancinelli. "This traditional ship is older than any friendship you will ever have. I don't have words for it, really."
INTERACTIVE: 38th Voyage Captain and Crew