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Board by board, the Charles W. Morgan sails toward seaworthiness

Mystic - Standing inside the massive hold of the whaling ship Charles W. Morgan last week, Quentin Snediker glanced at the thick framing one last time before it was covered with planks.

Some of the framing is original to the 1841 ship, while other pieces have been replaced by live oak that Snediker has acquired from all over the country.

The director of the Mystic Seaport shipyard said the restoration of the world's last wooden whaling ship is on track, and that in a few years the Morgan should be able to sail to old ports such as New London and New Bedford and Provincetown, Mass., for the first time in almost a century.

About one-third of the $6.5 million project to restore the hull of the National Historic Landmark has been completed, Snediker said. The hull would be launched on July 21, 2013, the 172nd anniversary of its original launch in New Bedford. Work such as reinstalling the rigging will continue through the remainder of 2013, with the Morgan setting sail in 2014.

About 14 shipwrights and apprentices work on the project daily, and Snediker said there have been no big surprises so far.

Precise three-dimensional laser measurements have been made of the 113-foot ship and patterns made of each piece of framing that needs to be replaced so a new one can be fashioned from sturdy trees known as live oaks.

"On the whole we know this ship very well so we know what we're getting into," Snediker said.

Some of the original framing in the bottom of the hull surprisingly did not need to be replaced, while wood added in the latter half of the 20th century had to be removed and replaced.

Snediker explained that's because the original oak has been preserved by its long immersion in salt water while the new wood is in areas subject to drying out and exposure to fresh water, all of which promotes rotting.

Money, wood needed

The Morgan has long been a popular exhibit at the Seaport, but it last sailed about 1924, almost two decades before the Seaport bought it from a group in North Dartmouth, Mass. In 1941, the Morgan was towed to Mystic.

The Seaport has raised a third of the money it needs for the project.

"We have the crew to do the work, the expertise and the tools, but in this economic climate it's been hard to raise the money," he said. "But we're doing a lot of fundraising."

The museum is also working to amass all the live oak and other wood it needs for the restoration. Snediker has assembled a network of people throughout the southeastern United States who know the museum is looking for large live oak trees and alerts him when they are available. The trees need to be large enough and long enough to fashion the thick timbers needed for the ship.

Through Snediker's network, the museum has obtained live oaks felled by hurricanes Katrina and Ike and removed to make way for road projects.

Last summer, during excavation work at the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston, oak ship timbers from the 1840s - the same decade that the Morgan was being built - were unearthed.

"The beauty of live oak is that it was still sound. A few days after coming out of the ground it was being put into the ship," Snediker said.

After completing the replacement of frames and planks on the inside of the hull, which once carried ballast, casks of water, supplies and barrels of oil, work will begin on the outside of the hull.

Snediker said the biggest part of the project comes near the end, when the bottom has to be replaced. That must be done last so the wood does not dry out.

"We still have a lot of work to do," he said.

When the project is done, Snediker said, 15 percent to 18 percent of the ship's original wood will remain.

"Part of historic preservation," he said, "is to retain as much of the original work as possible."


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