Published November 02. 2008 4:00AM Updated December 11. 2009 5:55PM
Mystic Seaport pulls whaler Charles W. Morgan from water to begin a three-year restoration
Mystic - The Charles W. Morgan could be called the “Mona Lisa” of Mystic Seaport.
But while Douglas Teeson, the museum's president and director, says that tongue-in-cheek about the 19th-century whaling ship, the Morgan has an advantage over the 16th-century masterpiece: Conservators can't restore Leonardo da Vinci's painting to it original glory, but the shipwrights and craftsmen at Mystic Seaport can return the world's last surviving wooden whaling ship to the condition it was in when it was launched 167 years ago.
On Saturday, workers in the museum shipyard hauled the 340-ton vessel out of the water for a three-year restoration that will cost at least $2.5 million - the biggest shipbuilding project at Mystic Seaport since the construction of the schooner Amistad a decade ago.
”The Morgan is the first among several vessels here that sets us apart from other museums,” Teeson said about the ship that is depicted in the museum's logo. “As stewards of this ship, it's our solemn duty to make sure it's preserved for future generations.”
The 105-foot-long Morgan, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1967, was launched in 1841 in New Bedford, Mass. Its long career took it across the world's oceans until its last voyage in 1921. It fell into disrepair, and in 1941 Mystic Seaport acquired the ship for $1 and placed it in a sand berth. A year later the museum opened the Morgan as an exhibit, but it was not until 1973 that renovations allowed it to float again. It has had two major restoration projects, along with smaller projects and annual maintenance.
”With a wooden ship, the process is ongoing. There's never a year when work does not go on with this boat,” said Quentin Snediker, the director of the museum shipyard.
Finding trees up to the task
The last time the Morgan was out of the water, eight years ago, it was apparent that major work would be needed to replace some of the planking, frames and other wood from just above the waterline to near the bottom of the hull.
The planning process revealed that that Mystic Seaport's 30-year-old lift dock was corroded and could no longer haul 340 tons. The museum spent several years raising $10 million in state, federal and private funds to replace the lift dock, which will allow the museum to maintain its large fleet of boats and perhaps build and restore large boats for other groups.
The computerized lift dock hauls a boat out of the water on a steel cradle after it's positioned by divers and with ropes and pulleys. The cradle moves along a 300-foot railway to the shipyard location where the work will take place. A drainage system collects paint chips, wood and other debris for disposal instead of letting it fall into the Mystic River.
The museum also had to find the large trees needed for the lumber. Snediker hunted for them in Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. Much of the live oak needed for the framing and stem was cut from massive-trunked trees felled by Hurricane Katrina.
The yellow pine for planking had to be at least 32 inches in diameter and 44 feet long.
”We have a network of people who know what we're looking for. When they find a couple of trees they call and ask, 'Are you interested?' “ he said.
About 70 percent of the wood that will be needed now lies in the shipyard in huge stacks. It will replace wood that dates to the original construction or was replaced during the ship's 80-year career.
'The presence of the people from the past'
The man turning the logs into lumber is sawyer Scott Noseworthy.
Some of the white oak he has already shaped into a 3-foot-by-3-foot block that is 44 feet long. Volunteers have shaped thousands of pieces of locust wood into the trunnels - long wooden pegs - that will be used to join the pieces of the ship, along with copper and bronze fasteners.
Noseworthy said he is looking forward to seeing areas of the boat exposed “that haven't been seen since its construction.”
It was Noseworthy who cut the first plank for the Amistad.
”The Morgan has its own allure,” he said. “The best time to experience it is first thing in the morning when the sun is coming up and you're by yourself,” he said. “You can feel the presence of the people from the past and all the history behind it.”
While Noseworthy is cutting with electric saws, the shipwrights will wield tools such as adzes and chisels like those used in the construction.
”Even today some of the hand tools are the best for the job,” Snediker said.
Snediker said the dozen shipwrights working on the project will examine each piece of wood.
”This is not like the demolition of a building,” he said. “You have to carefully dismantle it piece by piece. First, you have to determine if the piece if strong enough to go back in.”
If not, the shipwrights will make a pattern and pick out an appropriate piece from Noseworthy's stack of lumber. They will use the pattern to cut a new piece and then install it. Then it will be on to the next plank or frame.
'It's a big deal'
Before the ship was hauled on Saturday, its masts and rigging had been taken down. Last week, shipyard workers used a crane to remove 40 tons of concrete and lead ballast through the decks.
Over the next three years, visitors will be able to climb a platform to watch the work, and the museum will open an exhibit on the restoration.
”The challenge for us is to keep it alive for three years and engage our visitors and school groups,” said spokesman Michael O'Farrell.
Teeson said the museum has amassed the $2.5 million for the restoration but is continuing to raise money for unforeseen contingencies, future work and an endowment.
Carl Kramer, editor-in-chief of Wooden Boat Magazine, said those who enjoy building and sailing wooden craft are closely watching.
”It's a big deal when a boat this big and of this historic relevance is restored,” he said. “It warrants all of our attention.”
For Snediker, the work is already having an impact.
”When the boats sit here and you perform routine maintenance on them day in and day out, unfortunately you start to take them for granted. You stop thinking about them as vibrant, movable objects that have an esoteric life of their own,” he said. “But when we started taking the rig out of her, the real character and nature of the ship came alive for me again.”