Artists Rebuild the Pride of Mystic Seaport

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 its 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.

Last week, 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 construction of the schooner Amistad a decade ago.

Facts about the boat:

  • 1967: The 105-foot-long Morgan was designated a National Historic Landmark
  • 1841: The boat was launched in New Bedford, Mass. and its long career took it across the world's oceans
  • 1921: It took its last voyage
  • 1941, Boat fell into disrepair and Mystic Seaport acquired the ship for $1 and placed it in a sand berth.
  • 1942: The museum opened the Morgan as an exhibit
  • 1973: Renovations allowed the boat to float again. It has had two major restoration projects, along with smaller projects and annual maintenance.

Prepping to Fix the Boat

"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.

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 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 museum 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.

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 man turning the logs into lumber is sawyer Scott Noseworthy, who cut the first plank for the Amistad.

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 would examine each piece of wood.

"You have to carefully dismantle it piece by piece. First, you have to determine if the piece if strong enough to go back in," he said

If not, the shipwrights will make a pattern and pick out an appropriate piece from Noseworthy's stack of lumber, use the pattern to cut a new piece and then install it. Then it will be on to the next plank or frame.

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.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
Contact Us