Walking the Plank of the Charles W. Morgan

The Charles W. Morgan as a ship out of water.

Keeping a 19th-century whaling ship afloat requires a combination of old-world craftsmanship and new-age planning, especially when that ship is the Charles W. Morgan, the world’s only surviving whaling ship. Built in 1841 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, this barquentine was named after Charles Waln Morgan, who owned and managed whaling vessels in the 19th century. After being purchased from New Bedford-based Whaling Enshrined Inc. in 1941, the Morgan was brought to the Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut, where she has been docked ever since.

Before being docked permanently, the Morgan accumulated a rich history including appearances in movies; she was used in Down to the Sea in Ships and Java Head in the 1920s, Moby Dick (1956), Amistad (1997) and Gangs of New York (2002). Before that, she logged 80 years at sea in 37 whaling voyages between 1841 and 1921. Michael O’Farrell, director of public relations at Mystic seaport says, “The Morgan’s ship’s logs are filled with fascinating tales that reflect the times in which she sailed. One captain, Thomas C. Landers lost his 16-year-old son Arthur overboard; his wife Lydia, gave birth to another son, named in honor of his brother, who shipped out with his mother and the crew at just three weeks of age. On another voyage, the Morgan rescued Russian prisoners from a forced-labor camp.

In terms of size, she’s comparable to many whaling ships of the 1840s: 105’0” on deck and 133’0” overall, with a beam of 27’8” and a draft of 12’7”, although fully loaded she could draw as much as 17’7”. Her displacement is 313.75 tons.

Since she’s constructed entirely of wood (30 percent of her original structure remains), the Morgan requires constant maintenance and periodic restoration. Indeed, she’s currently undergoing a three-year restoration in which the Mystic Seaport Museum plans to restore the lover bottom framing, including a partial replacement of the keelson and full replacement of the stem and the interior ceilings, all while hopefully retaining at least ten percent of the original materials.

Six or seven interns and shipwrights will be hired to focus solely on restoring the Morgan. They’ll work with the seven full-time shipwrights and shipkeepers who are responsible for the routine maintenance of the Morgan, along with the rest of the museum’s ship collection, which numbers more than 500. Regular upkeep consists of painting and cleaning, as well as turning her in her slip to make sure both sides get equal wear and tear. Of course, watertight integrity is critically important, and is achieved through periodical caulking and sheathing of the underwater surface, as well as painting and sealing all surfaces with traditional coatings like pine tar.

Maintaining a ship like this requires a combination of traditional and modern technologies. The Morgan docked at Mystic Seaport’s Henry B. DuPont Preservation Shipyard where antique vessels are regularly restored using a combination of traditional methods and modern technology. Shipyard Director Quentin Snediker says, “For some jobs only a traditional tool such as a hand-adze, a hand-rabbet plane, or a heavy antique chisel will suffice…Even the new frames will be cut by the shipyard’s main saw, which is nearly 100 years old.” Modern technology does aid in measurement and documentation and many up-to-date stationary and hand power tools are employed. “The hand adze, wood handle socket chisels, hand planes, and more are still a part of every shipwright’s toolchest. Snediker adds, “For example, our re-saw dates to 1893 and our ship saw is from the same era. Even our “new” planner is from 1947, while our old one is from 1917. And after a power tool has been used, we finish all work with hand tools for an authentic finish.

The restoration of Charles W. Morgan is funded by individual donations, corporate sponsorships, and state and federal grants. The Connecticut Commission of Culture and Tourism has also provided a grant for restoration. According O’Farrell, “Fundraising is definitely a challenge given the current economic climate. However, the Museum is placing concerted efforts on raising the necessary funds to sufficiently restore the Morgan in order to maintain the vessel’s historic integrity for future generations.”

If you’d like to learn more about the Charles W. Morgan, visit www.mysticseaport.org/morganrestoration. If you’d like more information on donating and volunteering, email development@mysticseapor.org or call (860) 572 5365.

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This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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