Published May 22. 2013 4:00AM Updated June 13. 2013 2:29PM
This summer all eyes will be on the Charles W. Morgan as it gets ready to embark on its 38th voyage to historic ports throughout New England. This National Historic Landmark is the only surviving wooden whaling ship in the world and the jewel of the Mystic Seaport watercraft collection. The ship, which has welcomed on its decks more than 20 million visitors since it arrived in Mystic in 1941, has been dry-docked at the seaport's Henry B. duPont Preservation Shipyard undergoing an extensive restoration project that began in 2008.
This year on Sunday, July 21, the museum will celebrate the 172nd anniversary of the Morgan's original launch in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1841. As significant an event as it was back then, it may be even more so when museum visitors come to witness another extraordinary event when the 133-foot-long, 313 tons of historic treasure will be gently launched into the Mystic River.
The day will be celebrated with speeches from dignitaries, family activities, and patriotic music from the United States Coast Guard Band beginning at 2 p.m. Award-winning documentary filmmaker Ric Burns will be the keynote speaker. Burns is the founder of Steeplechase Films and was recognized for his Emmy-nominated documentary "Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World" in 2010. Throughout the day, the museum's interpretive staff will be exhibiting what life would have been like during the height of the whaling industry.
"The launch will be a big moment," said museum director of communications Dan McFadden. "This is a pretty exciting time. The day will be all things Morgan."
Such has been the year leading up to it. In April of 2012, Governor Dannel P. Malloy, Senator Andrew Maynard and other Connecticut state legislators designated the 2013-14 academic year as the 'Year of The Charles W. Morgan.' The intention is for students to use the Morgan as a tool for study to learn more about the history of whaling and of Connecticut.
The restoration project began five years ago and, when it is complete, will have cost an estimated $7 million. It has been funded primarily through private donations, grants — including a $500,000 grant from the state of Connecticut — and corporate sponsors, with additional funds still needed. When the Charles W. Morgan is launched, she will be as good as when she first launched so many years ago, McFadden said.
"It's an important day for the ship. She'll be lowered into the water from the lift dock. It should take about 20 minutes."
The ship will remain in the river until spring of next year, when it will be towed to New London, where it will be outfitted and ballasted in final preparation for its 38th voyage. During that preparation, some electronic navigation equipment, generator and other necessities that are required for the ship to make the trip will be installed, but will be removed upon its return to Mystic.
"The Morgan will be accessible to visitors while she is being prepared for the voyage," reports McFadden. "She will be berthed in the shipyard, but a new gangway will be installed and people will be able to go on board and explore the ship as usual."
During its 80-year career as a whaling ship, the Morgan made 37 voyages all over the world to 59 ports of call. In the summer of 2014. The ship will sail to Newport, R.I., Martha's Vineyard, New Bedford, through the Cape Cod Canal, on to Provincetown, Mass., and the Stellwagen Bank to Boston and then back home to Mystic after its six-week voyage. In order to preserve its historic preservation status, it is not licensed as a passenger-carrying vessel, although the seaport is considering possible ways to give the public greater access.
There is a touch of irony in this whaling ship sailing to Stellwagen Bank, a national marine sanctuary that is a feeding ground for whales at certain times of the year. The area is often frequented by whale watch vessels, the new kind of whaling industry.
Mystic Seaport, The Museum of America and the Sea, is located at 75 Greenmanville Avenue, Mystic, Conn. Visit www.MysticSeaport.org or call 860.572.0711 for updated information on the Morgan launch and other special events.