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Whale of a refit

The 172-year-old Charles W. Morgan is in the final phases of a restoration that should keep the venerable whaleship sailing for another 172 years

The whaleship Charles W. Morgan is a powerful American maritime icon. Built and launched in New Bedford, Mass., in 1841, the 113-foot full-rigged whaler is this country’s oldest commercial ship still afloat. The only U.S. ship still on the water that is older is the naval frigate USS Constitution, which was launched in 1797.

The Morgan will set off on a voyage to New England ports next spring.

As the five-year, $7.5 million restoration of the venerable Morgan winds down, the team behind the project sees it as a wise investment in America’s nautical heritage. “This launch is a milestone in the life of this great ship,” said Steve White, president of Mystic Seaport, the Morgan’s steward since 1941, as he addressed the 2,000-strong crowd in Mystic, Conn. “Today she turns 172 years old, and we hope this restoration will help preserve her for another 172 so that future generations will be able to walk her decks and hear her tell the important story of our nation’s shared maritime heritage.”

The July 21 relaunch of the last remaining wooden whaleship — part of an American whaling fleet that once numbered more than 2,700 — garnered global attention. The ship was christened by Sarah Bullard, the great-great-great granddaughter of Charles Waln Morgan, one of the original owners of the ship and the man after whom it is named. Keynote speaker Ric Burns, a documentary filmmaker like his older brother, Ken, described the ship as an “ambassador from a crucial moment in American history.”

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“This one ship has embodied, made possible, made real and brought alive the experience of whaling as no other single artifact on the planet,” Burns said.

Sarah Bullard, the great-great granddaughter of Charles Wain Morgan christened the ship.

An estimated 20 million people have walked the Morgan’s decks since she arrived at Mystic Seaport on the eve of World War II, where she has remained ever since. That will change next May, when the restoration will be complete and the Morgan will set sail for the first time since her last whaling voyage ended in 1921.

“She’s probably in as good or better shape now than in 1921,” says Quentin Snediker, director of Mystic Seaport’s Henry B. duPont Preservation Shipyard and the director of the Morgan restoration, which began in November 2008.

The Morgan will leave her berth at Mystic Seaport and embark on a six-week voyage to historic New England ports, including New London, Conn., Newport, R.I., and Vineyard Haven (Martha’s Vineyard), New Bedford, Provincetown and Boston in Massachusetts. She will be the center of an initiative to tell her story “on site, online and on board” to reach the largest possible audience, according to the seaport. The idea is to appeal to all ages and to build an experience that communicates four major themes: the American sailor; the influence of different cultures connecting at sea; whaling as an example of American enterprise; and America’s changing relationship to the natural world, specifically the role of whaling in hunting the animals to near extinction.

This past July, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded Mystic Seaport $450,000 to support public programming related to what has been dubbed the Morgan’s “38th Voyage.” During an 80-year career, the ship sailed 37 voyages to the remote reaches of the globe. The 38th represents a “new interpretation, a new dynamism introduced by the museum,” Snediker says. “She’s still a National Historic Landmark, but now she’s an operating artifact, and because she is in such good shape now, we want to share her.”

Dream team

Mystic Seaport shipyard director Quintin Snediker (leaning against beam) led a talented team tasked with restoring a National Historic Landmark.

Snediker, 62, has built his career on and around sailing vessels, particularly traditional ships. He has captained schooners and clipper ships, been the associate director of programs at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in Maryland, which specializes in mid-Atlantic schooners, and co-authored the book “Chesapeake Bay Schooners.”

At Mystic Seaport he supervised the building of the replica 19th century two-masted schooner and slave ship Amistad, which played a key role in the nation’s anti-slavery movement and was the subject of a 1997 film by Steven Spielberg.

For the Morgan project, Snediker assembled a seasoned team for traditional timber shipbuilding, including retired shipwright Roger Hambidge, who led the 1980s restoration of the Morgan. “He’s a walking encyclopedia of the Morgan and an invaluable member of the team,” Snediker says. Others are second-generation shipwrights Walt Ansel and Kevin Dwyer, and Jeff Gold, who worked with Ralph Stanley, a traditional wooden-boat builder from Maine. “These are the real veterans who have done this kind of work all their careers. With large timber work like this, there is quite a small pool of talent — less so than 25 years ago.”

The team included several graduates of the International Yacht Restoration School in Rhode Island. Snediker says the crew was well aware that their job was to restore a National Historic Landmark. “It’s somewhat humbling, to tell the truth,” he says. “She’s 172 years old. Something we’re reminded of every day is that we are part of the continuity, not necessarily anything special, just part of her ongoing existence, one that others will take stewardship of upon our departure.”

Hammer and nails

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Snediker says the challenge of a restoration versus a new build, such as Amistad, is surgical in nature. “With the Morgan, which underwent partial restorations in the 1970s and 1980s, parts of it had been restored, or they were in good enough shape that we had to work around them,” he says.

While the earlier restoration work focused mostly on the topsides, this far more comprehensive project focused on the hull. “But that was anticipated and planned for. We had a fairly good picture of what was in good shape,” he says. “We knew the principal work was a band around a couple feet above waterline all the way down to the bilge and stem. We ended up replacing 100 percent of the ceiling. We knew we had work in the transom but ended up replacing it entirely.”

Snediker describes the work as difficult and time-consuming but not beyond the crew’s capabilities. “Because of the pool of talent that we have here, we could see the job and do the job,” he says. “We sometimes scratched our heads in terms of what to do first, but it’s wonderful work — complex woodworking by today’s standards.”

Another challenge, one that was beyond their direct control, was the availability of the essential raw material: the wood itself. “The type of old-growth trees we need are just not as available now,” Snediker says. “Back in the 19th century, the nation was covered with virgin forest just ready to be exploited.”

Today, there is much less old-growth wood and considerably more environmental conservation efforts, so the white oak, live oak and long leaf pine the Morgan needed are more difficult to acquire. That need was eased by a series of fortuitous “salvage projects,” as Snediker calls them. The first was Hurricane Katrina, which slammed the Gulf Coast in 2005 and uprooted 150- to 300-year-old live oaks “like weeds from the driveway,” says Snediker, who saw them firsthand when he negotiated their acquisition for the Morgan. “It was rewarding to the individuals to give up their trees, knowing it was going to a National Historic Landmark project,” he says. “Otherwise they would not become available, because people just do not cut down live oaks.”

Snediker estimates Mystic Seaport acquired about 350 tons of live oak logs from Katrina alone and another 150 to 200 tons from Hurricane Ike, which hit Galveston, Texas, in 2008. A surprise material recovery came in 2010 from the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston: centuries-old live oak and white oak preserved in mud and hand-hewn specifically for use in ships. The enormous timbers were discovered while crews were prepping the site for the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital construction project.

As Snediker explains, the wood had been stored to preserve it for use. “The wood was kept in a slurry — deprived of oxygen — and was still absolutely sound,” Snediker says. “This was old-growth wood cut by master craftsmen in the age of shipbuilding. There were several hundred pieces of framing stock already cut; a lot of that went into the Morgan.”

Buying time

The Charles W. Morgan was relaunched this summer after a five-year restoration.

On launch day, the Morgan sat in a cradle on rails. She was slid over a platform, and the entire platform was submerged until the ship floated free. The process took about 20 minutes.

All wooden vessels take on water when launched, and the Morgan was no different. “Wood dries out a lot in 4-1/2 years,” Snediker says, referring to the lengthy project. “And we have planks in some cases 4 inches thick, a keel that’s 90 feet long in three pieces, deadwood that is 16 by 16 inches. Some is 1841 material, so I expect it will take three months to fully expand.”

In 2008, when the project began, Snediker’s team estimated that the “new” Morgan would contain 30 to 35 percent of the ship’s original wood; in the end, about 15 percent remains original. “We were quite happy we were able to retain as much original construction as we did,” he says. “Most impressive is the white oak keel. The backbone of the ship is still the same backbone that carried her on every voyage and will carry her on every voyage to come.”

A reset button has essentially been pushed for the Charles W. Morgan. “We look at it in terms of 30 to 50 years before she should again need substantial restoration,” Snediker says. “We bought her a good 50 years, I think, which is again a part of that long-term continuity.”

October 2013 issue