World's last whaler may get chance to return to the sea

The wooden whaling ship Charles W. Morgan sits atop the lift dock at the Mystic Seaport's H.B. DuPont Preservation Shipyard after it was lifted from the Mystic River last November prior to the start of a 3-year restoration project.
The wooden whaling ship Charles W. Morgan sits atop the lift dock at the Mystic Seaport's H.B. DuPont Preservation Shipyard after it was lifted from the Mystic River last November prior to the start of a 3-year restoration project.

Mystic - After 89 years, the Charles W. Morgan may sail again.

On Tuesday, the Mystic Seaport announced it is studying the feasibility of restoring the world's last wooden whaling ship to withstand the rigors of a ceremonial journey to ports such as New London, Newport, R.I., and its original homeport of New Bedford, Mass., in the summer of 2012.

The museum's board of trustees is scheduled to review the results of the study late next month and make a decision on the plan.

The 113-foot-long Morgan made 37 voyages during a profitable career that began in 1841 and ended 80 years later. It last sailed in 1923 and was towed to the museum in 1941.

Last fall the museum began a three-year, $6 million restoration of the vessel, which has won classification as a National Historic Landmark. While the museum has raised half of that money, the cost would increase to as much as $8 million if the board decides to sail the Morgan. The additional money would be needed to offset the cost of the voyage and additional construction and equipment.

"We just got to thinking that this is an opportunity to tell the story of the last remaining whaling ship much more vividly," said museum President and Director Stephen White. "This will allow her to be more alive."

On Tuesday, White and the man overseeing the Morgan's restoration, shipyard director Quentin Snediker, stressed that the work needed to sail the Morgan would not change its appearance or historical integrity. Any modern equipment needed for the voyage, such as lifesaving equipment, would include items that could be taken on and off the ship. No items such as watertight bulkheads or an engine would be installed.

"If it can't be done without her being authentic, then we won't do it," White said.

And while there could be the possibility of additional trips if the first one works out, White added, the Morgan will not be offering rides to paying customers or carrying passengers.

"This is a ceremonial cruise," he said. "She's not being turned into a pleasure craft. We have to respect that she is a museum object."

White said he sees the Morgan not as the museum's ship but one that belongs to New England, the country and even the world because of the long whale-hunting voyages it made around the globe.

"But it's hard to tell that story when she stays at the dock," he said. "And there's no ship left that can tell this story."

White said that as the restoration to replace much of the original wood between the keel and the waterline got under way, museum officials began thinking that when the work is done the Morgan would be in its best sailing condition since it was built.

"She'll be as strong as when she was a working vessel," he said.

But first the museum is consulting engineers, insurance companies and the Coast Guard to see if a sailing trip might in fact be possible.

If the Morgan does sail again, the museum will not be taking any chances with the centerpiece of its collection. The Morgan will be towed down the Mystic River and a small armada of support boats will accompany it every step of the way. It will sail in relatively calm conditions.

"The crew will be carefully selected to minimize any possible risk," White said.

He said the Morgan's first trip would be to New London, which was once one of the country's largest whaling ports. There, the water is deep enough to add ballast. That work cannot be done at the museum because the Morgan would not be able to make its way down the Mystic River once it is weighed down.

White said he is especially excited about sailing the Morgan back to its first homeport of New Bedford. He added that many of the descendants of those who served aboard the Morgan still live in New England today.

The plan to sail the ship would also bring more attention and possible funding to the restoration project because people will know it will sail again, White said.

Museum Board of Trustees Chairman Richard Vietor said Tuesday that when White described the plan to trustees last month, it brought them to their feet with excitement. Seaport spokesman Michael O'Farrell said museum employees were equally excited when told about the plan.

"It's a grand goal," Vietor said.

In his office Tuesday afternoon, White looked at a photo of the Morgan at its dock.

"She just wants to go," he said.

j.wojtas@theday.com

BY THE NUMBERS

Built in 1841

Active whaling ship for 80 years

Acquired by Mystic Seaport in 1941

$1.4 million: Earnings as a whaling ship

$8 million: Cost of renovation and trip

1: Number of sailing ships (USS Constitution) in the country older than the Morgan

Named a National Historic Landmark in 1966

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