Mystic - There hasn't been an event like this at Mystic Seaport since the launching of the Amistad in 2000.
During a one-hour ceremony beginning at 2 p.m. Sunday, the Seaport will relaunch the whaling ship Charles W. Morgan, which has been undergoing a $7 million restoration over the past four years. Shipwrights and other craftsmen have come from around the country to work on the ship.
The 113-foot-long Morgan is not only the iconic symbol of the Seaport, it is the world's last surviving wooden whaling ship from a fleet that once numbered 2,700. It is also a National Historic Landmark and holds the distinction of being the country's oldest commercial vessel still afloat.
The launch ceremony Sunday, the 172nd anniversary of the day the vessel first was launched in New Bedford, Mass., will feature documentary filmmaker Ric Burns as the keynote speaker.
"This is the most extensive and important restoration project the museum has undertaken in quite a few years," said longtime museum shipyard director Quentin Snediker, who has overseen the Morgan project, among others, including the construction of the Amistad.
Snediker added that the group of craftsmen assembled for the project not only has the needed skills but "a reverence for the work they are doing."
"They feel a great obligation to maintain the historic importance of the artifact because this is not just a ship, it's an artifact," he said.
Even though the 113-foot Morgan is being launched on Sunday, there's still much work to do as the museum prepares the ship to begin a journey late next spring to visit historic whaling ports around New England.
"The launch is a major milestone, but it's still just a milestone," Snediker said.
While the majority of the work to the hull is complete, details of a whaling ship, such as davits, have to be added while the captain's cabin and fo'c'sle have to be restored after being partially dismantled for the hull work. Fourteen of the 22 spars have to be replaced or repaired, and the ship has to be rigged, fitted with new sails and have the electrical system replaced.
The trip next summer requires the installation of navigation and safety gear, a generator, batteries and a bilge pump. Most of this modern equipment will be removed when the voyage is over.
While he called the launch an exciting time for the museum, Snediker said he will miss the structural work and acquisition of wood and structural materials.
After the project is complete next spring, the Morgan will travel to New London, where it will spend three weeks preparing for the voyage and conducting sea trials.
Escorted by a tugboat and the Roann, a fishing vessel restored at the Seaport, the Morgan next will sail to Newport, R.I., Vineyard Haven, Mass., New Bedford, Mass., the Cape Cod Canal, Provincetown, Mass., Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in Massachusetts Bay, Boston, then back to New London before returning to the Seaport in September 2014.
Since the restoration began in November 2008, each piece of wood that has been removed and replaced has been documented with photographs, laser scans and X-rays. The Morgan has between 15 percent and 18 percent of its original wood, including its keel. Much of the new wood came from the southeastern United States, including oak trees downed by storms such as Hurricane Katrina.
The majority of the restoration has focused on deteriorated framing below the water line. Interior planking had to be removed to reach the framing, and some of it was replaced. Exterior planking also was replaced. The work is expected to preserve the ship for the next 30 years.
The Morgan went on 37 profitable voyages in a career that spanned 80 years and ended in 1921. Those voyages took it as far as the South Pacific and the Arctic. It arrived at Mystic Seaport in 1941.
The Morgan will be closed to the public on Sunday but reopened to visitors early next week.