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Morgan tugging on the lines

I am sure I am not alone in savoring the pleasure of having a genuine whaling ship tied up on New London's waterfront again.

Charles W. Morgan looks, if I could imagine a ship to have feelings, happy, too, tucked in at City Pier, in the watery foreground of a city that similar ships once helped to make rich.

It's also reassuring to know that the Morgan will be setting sail from New London a few times in June, for sail training, and then will leave from here for its 38th voyage, around New England, before returning again.

For this little window of 2014, New London is the ship's temporary homeport.

Of the many handsome photographs The Day has published of the Morgan's most recent restoration and voyage planning, my favorite is the one depicting the ship arriving in New London, framed by the steeple-rich skyline of the old whaling port.

Of course, as the Morgan's new captain, Kip Files, would have it, ships are designed to sail, not to sit at the dock. And he told me this week, as the Morgan rocked a bit, from a passing wake on the Thames River, his ship feels as if it is tugging at its lines, ready to set out.

Even on these calm days in New London, the Morgan is much more a living ship, rocking and rolling a bit, than it ever was at its secure berth far up the Mystic River.

On the one hand, Mystic Seaport is being exceptionally cautious about sending its treasured artifact, a national landmark, out to sea, and the preparations have included all sorts of backups and contingencies, including a three-day weather window for each departure, to make sure no undue risks are taken.

This sort of caution is part of what makes the Morgan's 21st-century voyage so different than the many that went before.

The crew, for instance, is trained and experienced, and rich with modern licenses. Some of the old Morgan crews were probably commandeered from waterfront bars, in ports around the world.

Imagine what some of the earlier Morgan captains would have thought of Files' ability to check the ship's position by satellite or to use a cellphone to summon a push from an accompanying tug.

And yet there are handicaps even to a modern sailing of the Morgan.

No one who has ever sailed the ship is still alive, and so there is a learning curve, even for accomplished sailors who know their way up and down the masts of a square rigger.

One particular challenge will be lowering the whaleboats, not something even contemporary sailors of tall ships have much experience with.

At least they don't have to actually capture a whale and process it or stay away from home, maybe for years, until they have caught their fill.

Scheduling is another big difference for this voyage, which has a short time window of a New England summer. On 19th-century voyages, Files notes, the only hurry might be to get around Cape Horn before winter.

Files' experience commanding tall ships includes his own, the 132-foot Victory Chimes, a three-masted schooner that is a grande dame of the Maine windjammer fleet. He is also captain of the 207-foot 1877 barque Elissa, owned and operated by the Galveston Historical Foundation and the Texas Seaport Museum.

Personable and passionate about old ships, he seems like a good choice by the Seaport to both display their ship at its best and interpret it, as the museum makes history while explaining it.

He also seems relaxed and confident about the trip, a soothing antidote to all the careful planning and natural anxiousness of such an unusual endeavor.

No doubt he and others, as is planned, will come back with tall stories to tell.

"I wouldn't have missed this for anything," he said.

This is the opinion of David Collins


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