Published May 18. 2014 4:00AM Updated May 18. 2014 11:51PM
Seventy-two years ago, Hermine Dudda and her twin sister got permission from their mother to walk down to the Mystic River and watch the Charles W. Morgan being towed up the river to its new home at Mystic Seaport.
The ship had fallen into disrepair and the 10-year-old Dudda "wasn't sure what all the fuss was about."
Later in life, as she went to work at Mystic Seaport, she discovered why people were so interested in the ship, whose 80-year whaling career ended in 1921.
On Saturday, Dudda was among the Seaport employees and invited guests aboard the world's last surviving wooden whaling ship as it began what will become its 38th voyage by being towed to New London by a tugboat. It was the first time the Morgan had left Mystic since arriving there in 1941.
In New London, the ship will be prepared for a two-month tour of historic New England ports, slated to begin June 14 with a trip to Newport, R.I.
"This is phenomenal," Dudda said as the Morgan traveled along the Groton shoreline at a crisp 8 knots late in the morning. "This is a chance of a lifetime."
Except for a brief moment when the ship got stuck on the muddy bottom at the mouth of the river and was nudged free by a tugboat, the three-hour, 45-minute trip to New London's City Pier was a smooth one.
Crowds packed Mystic River Park and along the banks of the river, cheering the ship, which squeezed through the open drawbridge and into Fishers Island Sound.
At one point as the ship passed just a few yards from the park, Seaport President Steve White, who first raised the idea of sailing the 173-year-old Morgan when its 5½-year-restoration was completed, stood along the port rail and cupped his hands.
"Thank you! Thank you, Mystic!" he yelled to the crowd.
"Bon voyage, Charles W. Morgan!" shouted back a man on shore as the crowd broke out into a chant of "hip, hip hooray."
"It was warm, exciting and appreciated," White said about the reaction of the crowds.
"I really felt a sense of community and that this was a really good thing for the ship, the museum and this community," he said. "There was a lot of teary eyes as we went through the drawbridge."
Before the trip began Saturday morning, there was a short ceremony in the Seaport shipyard where the restoration took place.
During the ceremony, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who was aboard for the trip, said the trip has "re-energized and refocused people's awareness of the Morgan" and "reminded us that it is truly a national treasure."
White said the restoration and trip were the result of the work, courage and commitment of many people over the years.
As they spoke, Quentin Snediker, who heads the shipyard and oversaw the restoration, stood along the rail, his head and hands resting atop it.
"We keep saying she's a lucky ship. The way the weather cleared this morning shows she still is,'" he said.
White then gave his instructions to ship Capt. Richard "Kip" Files, telling him to proceed to New London and other ports.
"We've prepared the ship well and given you a good crew," he said, adding the hold will no longer carry whale oil but instead history and knowledge to collect and share.
The ship was pushed away from the dock at 9:07 a.m. and made its way through the drawbridge. A flotilla of support boats and police vessels accompanied the Morgan, which was followed by an armada of kayaks and small boats, some of which traveled with the Morgan to New London.
All long the way people cheered, congratulating White and the crew.
"I am awestruck by this," he said.
While Courtney has many invitations to attend weekend events, he said being on the Morgan was one he was not going to miss.
"This is a chance to be part of history. It's not something you can take a raincheck for," he said.
For lead shipwright Rob Whalen, the turning point for the Morgan came on Thursday, when the crew began to move their belongings on board.
"The ship was now alive. You could feel the palpable shift. It has a life of its own again," he said.
New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio was not at City Pier waiting to welcome the Morgan Saturday afternoon. Instead, he took the opportunity to board the ship in Mystic and be part of the trip to New London.
As a boy growing up in Westerly, he said, his parents often took him to the Seaport, where going aboard the Morgan was one of his favorite things to do.
"This ship is such an icon. To be on it going to New London is almost a surreal experience," Finizio said.
He said City Pier has been upgraded for the Morgan's stay, which he hopes will draw people to the city.
"This is a huge honor for the city of New London," he said. "We have a proud history of being the Whaling City. So to have the last American whaling ship visit our city is a great opportunity."
Saturday was the second time the Morgan has visited New London. It was there briefly in 1941 just before it arrived at the Seaport.
Also on board Saturday was Steve Coan, president of Mystic Aquarium.
"It's an honor and a real privilege to be a part of this," he said. "Our two organization are great friends and partners, so I'm happy for Mystic Seaport. It's a huge thing for the community, Mystic and tourism."
Coan said he was impressed with how White took on the challenge of sailing the Morgan again and fundamentally changing the direction of the museum.
As the Morgan docked at City Pier at 12:50 p.m., Finizio went to the starboard rail and yelled to the crowd, "Hey, New London, let's give the Charles W. Morgan a New London welcome!"
He then led the crowd on three rounds of "Hip, hip, hurray!"
White said he felt exuberant as the ship docked. A Seaport staffer handed him one of the baseball caps being passed out to commemorate the 38th voyage.
"It's like winning the Super Bowl," he joked as he pulled on the cap.
While in New London, the remaining ballast will be added to the ship and the crew will conduct training cruises, marking the first time it's been under sail in close to a century.
The first training cruise into Fishers Island Sound is slated for June 7.
"If you're a sailor, you're going to want to be here for that," White said.