New generation learns ancient shipbuilding craft on Morgan restoration

Crews at Mystic Seaport move the Charles W. Morgan on Wednesday from its berth to a new spot in preparation for Saturday's transit to New London. The Morgan will be towed to City Pier to prepare for the first leg of its historic 38th voyage, its first since 1921.
Crews at Mystic Seaport move the Charles W. Morgan on Wednesday from its berth to a new spot in preparation for Saturday's transit to New London. The Morgan will be towed to City Pier to prepare for the first leg of its historic 38th voyage, its first since 1921. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo

Mystic — Growing up just down the coast in Madison, Matt Barnes remembers family visits to the historic whaling ship Charles W. Morgan at the Mystic Seaport.

"I always came here as a kid, and the Morgan has always been an attraction for me," the 30-year-old Barnes said.

He did an internship at the Seaport while studying to become a boatbuilder at the International Yacht Restoration School of Technology & Trades in Newport, R.I., and is now one of about a dozen young shipwrights working under six senior shipwrights on the restoration of the Morgan, the world's last wooden whaleship.

"It's been amazing. It's been quite a learning experience," Barnes said while taking a break from working on the outer stem at the bow of the ship. "This is nothing I've learned in school, or I've learned anywhere else.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to come here and work on this boat."

Barnes arrived 18 months ago to join the team of shipwrights readying the 173-year-old Morgan for its first voyage in 93 years, and has labored since on the top-to-bottom restoration of the ship.

Restoration of the Morgan, a National Historic Landmark and a major attraction at the Seaport since it was towed there in 1941, has created a unique opportunity for ship carpenters, who are better known as shipwrights. A recent post on the Seaport's website noted that as the May 17 date to float the Morgan up the Mystic River approaches, "On board the shipwrights are attending to a laundry list of items including preparing the transom to mount the eagle emblem, paneling the captain's cabin and recaulking and preparing the bow for a new coat of paint."

At any given time, shipwrights are all over the Morgan, topside and below deck.

Twenty-four-year-old Jamie Kirschner of Portsmouth, R.I., was invited to be part of the team by Walter Ansel, a second-generation Seaport shipwright. Kirschner attended the same boat-building school as Barnes and met Ansel when he taught a class there.

Working with and learning from Ansel and other senior shipwrights has been an education and opportunity, said Kirschner, who admitted he gets down when he thinks about what he will do next.

"I will have a hard time topping this project," he said. "It's a great project to be part of, and I will always think back on it fondly."

The work, he said, is like "a roller coaster. Some tasks last months, like caulking the 'tween decks," and others are quick.

Ali Mitchell, 23, of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., has worked as a blacksmith and a painter on the Morgan restoration for the past 15 months.

Working with more experienced Seaport employees, Mitchell has learned to fabricate deadeyes, shackles, hearts and other fittings for the ship.

"There is absolutely no substitute for having people who know, who have been there, gotten the scars, helping you along, keeping you on track, letting you make your own mistakes and then being there to help you fix them," she said.

Students can read and learn a great deal from books, or watch how-to videos, but learning from experienced, knowledgeable shipyard workers is an incredible opportunity, said Mitchell, who earned a bachelor of arts degree from Williams College and is interested in women engaged in shipbuilding or maritime trades.

"Every single person working on this boat has their own pretty incredible story and a lot of talent to share," she said, "and I never thought I would be blacksmithing, never in a million years."

Working in a shipyard, or in this case the H.B. duPont Preservation Shipyard at the Seaport, is a hands-on education, she said. "It's so important to have skilled adults who know a lot more than you do and are willing to share and teach you. I'm very lucky."

Preservation shipwrights

Quentin Snediker, the shipyard director, said the unique thing about the Seaport is that it has been maintaining large wooden craft since the 1940s.

"This is not like it's a revival of the skills," he said. "The first generation of craftsmen we had here came from the era of wooden vessels. Those people coming here brought the collective experience and talent of generation after generation of wooden vessel tradition. So the first generation here, people now my age, started with the older generation back in the '50s and '60s and now they are masters of their trade and they are in turn passing it on to yet another generation."

Building or restoring a ship is not like other construction.

"There's hardly a straight or flat piece in a ship," Snediker said. "While it may appear to have flat pieces, everything has a subtle curve at the very least. ... And that's where the real skill of a shipwright comes in."

At the Seaport, a ship's carpenter not only works with large timbers, but also carries traditional tools: an adz, mallet, chisel and pocket knife.

"It's a lot of the traditional way of building things, but on a large scale," Barnes said. "You are given an example and told to replicate it."

The Seaport's documentation staff has line drawings of the Morgan and photos of the ship from the turn of the century and the shipwrights look to them for guidance.

"We are considered preservation shipwrights so we are trying to keep up the historical value of how they would have done it when it was originally built," Barnes said.

The Morgan was launched July 21, 1841, from the yard of Jethro and Zachariah Hillman in New Bedford, Mass., when John Tyler was president. Now, more than 17 decades later, Seaport shipwrights are readying her for a ceremonial return to the sea, and they all admit to an admiration for the ship.

"Every time we take something apart and see evidence of the people who built her originally in 1840-41 ... it really comes alive," Snediker said. The shipwrights "feel a tremendous reverence for the vessel and the craftsmen that went before them."

For Ali Mitchell, it's the camaraderie of other shipwrights and the sweat and toil that's gone into getting the Morgan restoration right.

"I don't have a deep connection with the ship as an historical landmark, and no family history in whaling, and I didn't come here as a kid ... but I've worked on it for a year and a half and I care about other people knowing what it takes to restore a ship like this - and the talent of the people who did it - that's what I'm excited about. Showing off the skilled traditional work that is showcased here. You don't see it often - a group of people working towards such a distinct goal with their hands like this."

a.baldelli@theday.com

Lead Shipwright Rob Whalen, right, gives some suggestions to shipwright Matt Barnes as he works on various parts of the bow on March 25.
Lead Shipwright Rob Whalen, right, gives some suggestions to shipwright Matt Barnes as he works on various parts of the bow on March 25. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo
Shipyard staff gather for a photo in front of the Charles W. Morgan as the Mystic Seaport relaunches the ship on July 21, 2013.
Shipyard staff gather for a photo in front of the Charles W. Morgan as the Mystic Seaport relaunches the ship on July 21, 2013. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo
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