For Mystic Seaport president, Morgan tour was 'culmination of years of work and dreams'
Mystic — From the large crowds that cheered it on from the banks of the Mystic River as it set out on its first trip in almost a century, to sailing among whales in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, this summer's voyage of the Charles W. Morgan was better than anyone expected, according to Mystic Seaport President Steve White.
On Wednesday, a little more than a month after the world's last surviving wooden whaling ship completed its seven-week voyage to historic New England ports, White sat down in his office and reflected upon what it all meant.
"Everyone is so proud that this little museum pulled off the big one," he said. "This changed the public narrative of the museum, what it is capable of and how it is doing" after the recession.
"Everything was better than we thought. She sailed better than we thought, the crew's performance was great and the weather was great. There was hardly a hiccup anywhere," he said.
White said the trip not only exposed the 173-year-old Morgan, its story, the museum and the country's maritime heritage to huge numbers of people throughout New England, it also helped the museum create new collaborative relationships with individuals, groups and businesses, and cemented those it already had. Without those relationships, he said, the trip would not have been possible.
It also showed the more than 1,000 individuals, foundations and corporations that donated money, time, equipment and expertise to the effort, that the museum could pull off a big project with their help, something he said will make them even more willing to support the museum's future endeavors.
White added that for the museum's staff, trustees and donors, the fact that the ship was "celebrated and honored" each day of the trip validated their work.
He called the trip "a grand culmination of years of work and dreams."
When White came to Mystic Seaport in 2009, the 5½ year restoration of the Morgan was already underway. There were no plans at the time to sail the ship, something that would increase the cost of the project.
In his initial meetings at the museum, White began to ask, "Why not sail the Morgan again?"
"It made sense," he recalled. "I said, 'Tell me why we can't or shouldn't do it.' Is it risky? Something could happen. But getting in your car in the morning is risky. It was just the right thing to do for Mystic Seaport. I knew we could do it because we have the best of the best."
White said that while museums exist to protect artifacts, "a museum also has an obligation to (determine) how best to share them with the public."
"Fundamentally, it's about what a great museum should do," he said. "She had to get restored. We could seize this opportunity or not."
White's question, which excited museum staff and trustees, led to this summer's trip.
The ship left the Seaport on May 17 for New London, where it spent a month, as it installed additional ballast and the crew went on training cruises. Crew members became the first people now alive to have sailed a traditional whaling vessel.
The Morgan left on June 15 for Newport, R.I., and then went on to Vineyard Haven, Mass.; New Bedford, Mass., where it was built and launched in 1841; the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary; Boston, where it docked next to the USS Constitution; and the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, where it helped celebrate the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Cape Cod Canal. It then headed back to New London before arriving home at the Seaport on Aug. 6. All along the way, the ship and its accompanying exhibits were open to the public.
The voyage was extensively chronicled on the Seaport website and via social media by the ship's appointed "stowaway" and the 85 "38th voyagers" who sailed aboard. The Morgan had made 37 profitable voyages from 1841 to 1921. It arrived at the Seaport in 1941.
White admitted that when the ship left Mystic in May, he worried whether people "would show up and pay attention."
But huge crowds packed Mystic River Park and lined the banks of the river and the Noank shoreline that day, cheering the ship and the museum. A fleet of small craft followed it down the river.
"That was a moment of validation for everyone," he said. "That brought tears to our eyes. When we got to New London that day, we realized that this was important and people would pay attention."
Large crowds also welcomed the ship home in August.
White said another favorite moment for him was the welcome the ship received in its original homeport of New Bedford. He said that when the ship passed the city's hurricane barrier, people cheered and cannons fired. There was a gala attended by close to 800 people, a boat parade and fireworks.
"She was coming home. We had brought her home after all these years," he said. "That was a pretty amazing moment."
White said seeing the Morgan and its whaleboats sailing among surfacing whales on Stellwagen Bank in an educational rather than a hunting capacity was breathtaking.
"The story of whaling had come full circle," he said.
White said the trip also helped the Seaport's interpreters, who in the past only could guess about aspects of how the ship performed under sail, but now can speak with authority.
"She was faster than we thought," he said. "She tacked easier than we thought. She was easier to sail than we thought and she didn't leak a lot."
So will the Morgan sail again?
White said a year ago that he considered this summer's trip a one-time event. But now he does not rule out a future trip, though not anytime soon. One challenge is raising the money.
"We know how to do it, and the ship's in good shape. But we're not a one-object museum. We have other stories to tell as well," he said. "From an emotional level, everyone who felt the Morgan moving under their feet would like to feel that again."
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