Published May 11. 2014 4:00AM Updated May 12. 2014 9:22AM
Mystic - When work began in November of 2008 on what would become the $10.6 million project to restore the whaling ship Charles W. Morgan, there were no plans to sail her again.
The ship's 80-year career, which began in 1841 in New Bedford, Mass., and would take her on 37 profitable voyages through the world's great oceans, was over.
Precise laser measurements of the ship's design had been taken. Massive oak logs had been collected from around the country and shipyard workers had begun to meticulously shape them into the replacement planks and other pieces needed for the restoration.
A lift dock had been installed, and the ship had been hauled out of the water, sitting in a cradle surrounded by scaffolding that towered over the shipyard's Holmes Street gate.
As the world's last surviving wooden whaling ship, the restoration would ensure that the National Historic Landmark would continue to tell its story for decades to come as a dockside attraction at Mystic Seaport, where it has remained since arriving in 1941.
But plans changed with the arrival in 2009 of new Seaport President Stephen White. At one of his first staff meetings, White raised the question many had wondered about: If the museum shipyard was going to do all this work, why not sail the Morgan again?
White, though, had an even bigger idea in mind: Why not have the ship undertake a 38th voyage, returning to historic New England ports including New Bedford, where she was built.
Some in the room, such as museum shipyard director Quentin Snediker, who has overseen the restoration and is fiercely protective of the ship's historic integrity, had some initial reservations.
Would such a trip jeopardize the museum's most prized artifact? Could the Morgan meet Coast Guard requirements without affecting the ship's historical integrity? Would the museum's board of trustees go along with the plan?
Those questions were all answered, and at 9:15 a.m. Saturday, the Morgan will, weather permitting, be taken out of its berth, through the drawbridge and pushed down the Mystic River on its way to the Thames River in New London. The ship will remain in the city for a month as it makes final preparations for a two-month tour of historic New England ports.
"We want to capture the ... imagination of the public and share the experience of what it was like to be a mariner in that era. Ships are made to go to sea, and by taking her out and actually sailing her again, we are helping the Morgan fulfill her mission and do what she was made to do," White said.
The trip is slated to begin June 14 as the Morgan heads to Newport, R.I. Snediker thinks the most exciting stop will be in New Bedford, where a large crowd is expected to welcome the Morgan home more than seven decades after it left. Another highlight will be when it arrives in Boston, where the country's oldest commercial vessel still afloat will be docked next to the USS Constitution, the world's oldest commissioned naval vessel still afloat.
"This trip will bring a vibrancy to the vessel that she has not had in more than 90 years. That to me is exciting, even if it's a one-time thing," Snediker said last week as shipwrights and other craftsmen continued to prepare the ship for the voyage.
"We're going to learn so much about her," he added about the opportunity to see how the ship performs under sail. "We'll take every bit of knowledge that can be gained from sailing here and interpret it here at the museum."
Preparing the ship for the trip and making the journey has added $1.4 million to the price tag of the restoration, bringing it to $12 million. Almost all of that has been raised through a combination of federal and state grants, private donations and equipment supplied by businesses, according to Seaport spokesman Dan McFadden.
Sailing the Morgan again "has added a layer of complexity to the project that took a little getting used to," said Rob Whalen, the project's lead shipwright.
He said the high point of the work has come over the past year, as the team has coalesced.
Relaunched last year
The 173-year-old Morgan, the lone survivor of a whaling fleet that once numbered 2,700, made 37 voyages from 1841 to 1921. Most lasted three years or more, and they earned $1.4 million for her owners. After its career ended, the ship appeared in the movies "Down to the Sea in Ships" and "Java Head."
She was then preserved by Whaling Enshrined Inc. and exhibited in a bed of sand at Col. Edward H.R. Green's estate in South Dartmouth, Mass.
The Morgan fell into disrepair before arriving at the Seaport in 1941, where it went on display and has undergone periodic preservation work ever since.
Discussions about the need for a major restoration of the ship began 20 years ago, and in 2003, Snediker began collecting wood for the project. Much of it came from the southeastern United States, including oak trees downed by storms such as Hurricane Katrina.
The majority of the restoration 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, rigging and masts also were replaced.
The work is expected to preserve the 113-foot-long ship for the next 30 years.
The restored Morgan was relaunched July 21, 2013, during a ceremony before large crowds both on land and on the Mystic River. It took place on the 172nd anniversary of the day the vessel was first launched in New Bedford.
With the work done, between 15 and 18 percent of the ship's original wood remains, including the keel first laid in New Bedford.
Shipwright Chris Taylor, who has been on the project from the start, said at times it's been "dirty, back-breaking work." At other times it's been interesting and exciting.
"It's been an honor to work on something like this. Early on, to work on the original part of the boat was fascinating every day," he said.
"It's going to be a huge day when the boat goes down the (Mystic) River, through the drawbridge and into the Sound. I'm looking forward to that," he said.
Modern equipment such as pumps, generators, lighting and a fire suppression system have been added for the voyage, but, with no further voyages planned, will be removed when the Morgan returns to Mystic in August.
The restoration is the biggest project for the museum's shipyard since the construction and launch of the Amistad replica in 2000. Snediker and others in the shipyard worked on that project as well.
But he pointed out the projects are different. While the Amistad was based on a 19th century design, it was a modern vessel designed to meet current safety and other standards. The Morgan is a historic artifact in which careful steps have been taken to safeguard its historic character.
Training in New London
The Morgan, which has no engine, will be pushed by a tugboat to New London, so its entire ballast can be installed.
The Mystic River is too shallow for the ballast to be installed there. The Thames River in New London is much deeper, as its channel has been dredged to accommodate submarines and massive cargo vessels.
During its month in New London, the ship will also go on four sail training cruises, complete its rigging and obtain Coast Guard certification for the voyage. It will also be open to the public on May 24, 25, 31 and June 1.
The ship is scheduled to sail for Newport on June 14.
Joining Capt. Richard "Kip" Files of Rockland, Maine, will be 10 experienced crew members, 20 sailors and assorted guests, for a total of "60 souls on board," according to Snediker.
A tugboat, the museum's fishing dragger Roann, and two inflatable boats will accompany the whaleship throughout the voyage. Snediker said the Morgan will sail as much as possible, and the schedule offers flexibility in case of bad weather.
At each stop, there will be dockside exhibits, live demonstrations and performances by chantymen to help tell the Morgan story.
During the voyage, visitors to the Seaport website will be able to see the exact location of the ship and track its progress using its automatic identification signal. The museum will also have a photographer and videographer aboard the ship to post updates using social media and the ship's website.
When it returns to Mystic in August, it will resume its life as a dockside exhibit. There are no plans for a 39th voyage.
"We've never intended for her to become an active operational vessel," Snediker said. "We wanted to share her with ports connected to her history and then bring her back here."