Charles W. Morgan Begins 38th Voyage

The Charles W. Morgan, a National Historic Landmark vessel and the last wooden whale ship in the world, departed Mystic Seaport to begin her 38th voyage on Saturday.

The ship will travel to New London, the first stop on what will be a three-month-long journey to historic ports in New England.

The Morgan was built in 1841 and has remained docked at Mystic Seaport since 1941.

"There isn’t anybody alive today who has seen a whaling ship with her sails up. Think about that,” said the ship's captain, Kip Files.

Indeed, the Morgan hasn’t even needed a captain since before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, but today, after a five-year restoration that cost $12 million, she set sail for New London to start an itinerary that won’t have her back in Mystic until August.

"It's chilling to see [the Morgan] go through that bridge again," said Mystic Seaport volunteer Jim O'Connor, of Madison, referring to the drawbridge carrying East Main Street over the Mystic River. "It was really neat."

O'Connor called Saturday's launch one of the highlights of his retirement. His wife, Doris, also a volunteer at the seaport, said the Morgan's launch has commanded the attention of her peers.

"Whatever department you happen to be working in, this is the focus," Doris O'Connor explained.

The Morgan will be pushed down the Mystic River by a tugboat, then towed across Fishers Island Sound and up the Thames River to New London, where it will stop at City Pier.

Several other vessels will follow the Morgan down the Mystic River, including a steamboat, fishing vessel and five whaleboats rowed by Mystic Seaport staff and volunteers.

"This is a big moment for Mystic Seaport and for the State of Connecticut, as we take this American icon, the oldest surviving commercial ship in the country, back to sea once again to carry out a new mission of education and celebration of our nation's shared maritime heritage," said Steve White, president of Mystic Seaport, in a statement.

In its century of service, the Charles W. Morgan has sailed and whaled the world over, barely eluding doom a number of times as her crews dodged cannons and cannibals, despite never having been a warship.

One would think that a trip up the New England coast, even seven decades since her last voyage, would be a walk in the park. Not so, said Files, as the Morgan drafted some 13 feet below the waterline the very shallow Mystic River.

"You really have to know the river, because the buoys that mark the river aren't necessarily where the deep water is," Files explained. "You have to find the deep water. And it's going to be dredged next year, but that doesn't help me now!"

But for those on hand to watch history set sail, Captain Files made it look easy despite the weight of all that history.

Referring to the Morgan’s original launch from New Bedford, Mass. in 1841, Files points out, “When this vessel was launched, California was still part of Mexico. Texas was its own [country].”

The last time the Morgan left harbor, Joe DiMaggio had just put the finishing touches on a 56-game hitting streak, a different kind of history some say will never be repeated.

But then again, Captain Files emphasizes that, neither will the role of whalers and their sailors.

“Vessels like this were hugely important to the growth of our country,” Files said.

The Morgan will stay in New London until about June 7, depending on the weather, and will then make her way to Newport and her birth city of New Bedford.

She'll move on to round out the summer on static display alongside the USS Constitution in Boston, the only ship in America older than the Morgan that's still afloat.

People interested in following the ship's journey by boat are asked to leave plenty of room for the Morgan and the tug to maneuver through the Mystic River channel.

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