Published March 11. 2013 4:00AM
Mystic - After five years and almost $7 million of work, Mystic Seaport will relaunch the restored whaling ship Charles W. Morgan at a July 21 ceremony that will feature documentary filmmaker Ric Burns as the keynote speaker.
The launch will come on the 172nd anniversary of the day the vessel was launched in New Bedford, Mass.
Work on the ship, which is the world's last surviving wooden whaling ship, will then continue with shipwrights, riggers and other craftsmen preparing it for an eight-week voyage to ports across New England in the summer of 2014.
While the shipyard's construction of the schooner Amistad in the 1990s was a "once in a lifetime opportunity to build a vessel with cultural significance," longtime shipyard director Quentin Snediker said the Morgan project is more important to him because of his interest in historic preservation.
"This is a major project - from the size of it, the institution's commitment, the historic integrity and the resources that have been made available to us to do the job," he said Friday while standing alongside the ship, which is protected by a massive, 50-foot-high plastic enclosure.
With 95 days left to the launch, he said the project is on schedule with 32 full-time employees along with volunteers now working on it. The ship, which has remained open throughout the restoration, will continue to host visitors during the final work.
Snediker said that highly skilled shipwrights and riggers have come from around the country to work on the restoration.
"This is not just a chance to preserve the ship but to preserve these skills for the future," he said. "This is a chance to pass them on to people young enough to be our kids."
The majority of the restoration has centered around the need to replace some of the framing below the waterline that has deteriorated. The interior planking had to be removed to reach the framing and some of it replaced as well. Exterior planking was also replaced with the last plank slated to be installed next month. The work is expected to preserve the 113-foot-long ship for the next 30 years.
Since the work began in November 2008, each piece of wood that has been removed and replaced has been meticulously documented with photographs, laser scanning and X-rays.
When the project is complete, the Morgan will still have between 15 and 18 percent of its original wood.
Pointing to the keel at the bottom of the ship, Snediker noted that it is the same piece of wood installed in 1841.
While much of oak for the project has come from trees downed by hurricanes in the south, some of it has come from wood the Navy originally collected to repair and build ships in the 19th century.
Two years ago, Snediker received a call from a construction company working in the historic Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston. While digging, the company had unearthed large pieces of white oak and live oak. A company employee recognized them as being made for wooden ships and the company called the Seaport to see if it was interested in them. The timbers were excavated and sent to the museum after years of preservation in the salty mud.
"They were gathered by the Navy's master shipbuilders who wanted the best materials available," Snediker said.
Standing in the captain's quarters, Snediker pointed out a one-ton beam the shipyard fashioned out of the wood to create the transom timber, a critical structural element that ties portions of the stern together.
He said a scientist who examined the wood determined that it began growing in the late 16th century and was cut down in northern Ohio between 1863 and 1868. During that time the Morgan was making voyages in the Pacific ranging from Tahiti to the Sea of Okhotsk off Russia.
After the ship is launched, the focus will turn to the rigging. In addition, modern elements will be added for the 2014 voyage such as life boats, electronic navigation, a generator and a firefighting system. Much of that will be hidden from public view to preserve the ship's historic integrity and then removed after the voyage.
Seaport spokesman Dan McFadden said the Morgan will first travel to New London where it will spend three weeks. Part of the time it will have ballast added for stability. That work cannot be done at the Seaport because the Mystic River is not deep enough for the fully ballasted ship to traverse without hitting the bottom. The ship will also take shakedown cruises out of New London because of its easy access to deep water.
The visit to New Bedford where the Morgan was built will take place on July 4, 2014. In Provincetown, the ship will take whale-watching trips.
"That will show how our relationship with whales have changed," McFadden said.
The trip through the Cape Cod Canal will coincide with the waterway's 100th anniversary celebration. While in Boston the Morgan will tie up next to the USS Constitution.
The Morgan will return to New London to have the ballast removed and then head back to the Seaport in early September. The museum has raised $4.5 million of the $7 million needed for the project.