Ceiling Plank Can Retire After 168 Years Of Service

Dean Seder, shipyard foreman at the Henry B. duPont Preservation Shipyard, helps haul out one of the original ceiling planks from the hold of the Charles W. Morgan, the last remaining wooden whaling ship in the world and the "crown jewel" of the Mystic Seaport collection. The 40-foot plank, which lines the inside of the hull covering the ship's frames, has not seen daylight since it was installed in 1841. Guiding the massive plank from inside the hull is Chris Taylor, one of the shipwrights restoring the ship. The ship is undergoing a meticulous three-year, $6 million restoration at the shipyard. A hole was cut into the hull to allow the shipwrights to remove the old, rotted planks, which will be replaced by authentic replacement planks. (STEPHEN DUNN / HARTFORD COURANT / September 18, 2009)

From the day she was launched in 1841, the Charles W. Morgan has been lucky, not an inconsiderable quality in a small, wooden ship that pursued whales beyond what was then the known limit of the watery world.

It was a freak current, according to a journal by one of her harpooners, that carried the Morgan and her becalmed crew clear of certain death in 1850 at the hands of the natives of Nonouti, deep in the heart of the Great South Sea. Floating ice saved her from destruction by the Confederate commerce raider Shenandoah in 1865 - before news reached the Siberian Arctic that the Civil War was about to end.

That the Morgan exists today, maritime historians say, is luck itself, after thousands of encounters with enraged whales and continuous circumnavigation over 80 years and 37 voyages - voyages often three years or longer in duration.

But exist she does. And to underscore that fact, her owner, Mystic Seaport, is contemplating an extraordinary $8 million restoration. It would make the ship the country's oldest seaworthy commercial vessel and, significantly, enable her to embark on a final cruise to some of the great whaling ports on the southern New England coast.

Should the trustees of the Seaport, the country's pre-eminent maritime museum, decide to return the Morgan to the open ocean, it probably will take place in 2012 or 2013. A visit to New Bedford, Mass., where she was built, is a certainty and there are tentative plans to call at New London, Newport, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket and Provincetown. There is talk, also, of a penitential cruise to the federal whale sanctuary at Stellwagen Bank, north of Cape Cod.

The trustees already have approved $6 million to begin restoring the Morgan to what she has been for the 68 years she has belonged to the Seaport: an exhibit tied to a dock in the Mystic River. When the trustees vote, probably Friday, it will be to decide whether to raise another $1.5 to $2 million to make the ship capable of sailing again.

Devotees of American maritime history have followed the run-up to a decision. Thousands have examined the specially designed dry dock at the Seaport where, since the Morgan was hauled there last fall, early restoration work has exposed sections of the ship's 168-year-old oak frames. Thousands more have been following over the Internet.

Just tied to a dock, the Morgan is the second-oldest ship afloat in America. Only the USS Constitution - the Navy's "Old Ironsides," launched in 1797 - is older. The heavy, 44-gun frigate named by George Washington is credited with turning the tide against Great Britain in the War of 1812. The Constitution is now berthed in Charlestown, Mass. In 1997, she sailed Massachusetts Bay on her 200th birthday after exhaustive, historic restoration by the U.S. Navy.

Mystic Seaport contemplates the same sort of meticulously accurate, historic restoration for the Morgan. She is the only ship remaining from the United States' 19th century whaling fleet, one of 2,700 ships that, over 14,864 voyages, "lit and lubricated the world," says Nantucket native Matthew Stackpole, who is leading the Seaport's fundraising effort for the Morgan. Fortunes accumulated through whale oil and bone underwrote the country's westward migration and financed the industrial revolution.

"The Morgan is the last of her kind," said Seaport President Stephen C. White. "If we don't protect her, this country will lose a very significant object. Some people are concerned that we are glorifying a whale ship. What we are trying to do is preserve this country's response to a challenge - a challenge for energy, a challenge for commerce. The country built ships. First they were little ships. Then we built them bigger and stronger. And the Morgan is one of the finest examples."

Whether she sails or not, the Morgan will remain the centerpiece of the Seaport's significant collection of 19th century American maritime artifacts and that has focused the discussion of whether to expose her once again to the vagaries of wind and water.

A restored Morgan, cruising under sail alone, would be of inestimable promotional value for a museum whose endowment is flattened by recession. But the Seaport's staff of historians, architects and shipwrights have been studying for months whether doing so would amount to an irresponsible exploitation of one of the country's most valuable marine artifacts.

"Are we overly exploiting this object by doing this?" White said. "The answer is no - but not a clean no. Some will argue that because she is the last of her kind and because she is fragile and wooden, she could sink. She could roll over. The masts cold roll out. A storm could come up.

"But the best use of her is to go and be what she is. And this is the best time. It wasn't possible 40 years ago. And it won't be possible 40 years from now. The museum also needs to do something big. And it is in the best interest of the ship."

It is not just any $8 million restoration that the Seaport contemplates. The goal is to replace as little of the Morgan's original materials as possible. Where necessary, replacement materials will be as close to the original as possible.

Since Hurricane Hugo in 1989, the Seaport staff has been chasing storms across the Southeast for the massive, uprooted, live oaks that are necessary to re-create the ship's frames, or ribs. The long, curved frames are 9 1/2 -inches by 9 1/2 -inches and vary from 9 to 14 feet long. They must be sawed, in a single piece, to the proper length and arc, requiring trees of sufficient diameter.

Agents are combing the Georgia, Alabama and north Florida woods for enough long leaf pine to plank the 106-foot long hull and 27-foot-wide deck. Nineteenth century shipbuilders liked long leaf pine because it was hard, yet sufficiently resinous to resist rot. The Morgan's original hull planks are 42 to 47 feet long, 14 to 16 inches wide and about 3 1/2 inches thick. That requires old growth timber, said Quentin Snediker, director of the Seaport's on-site shipyard.

He said the restoration may require 75,000 board feet of lumber, in spite of efforts to retain all that is practical of the 168-year-old wood..

The ship's Manila cordage will be replaced, where necessary, with new, but identical cordage from the Philippines. New sails, like the old ones, will be cotton fiber. Hemp, from Hungary, will be impregnated in Denmark with amber-colored pitch called Stockholm or pine tar, and it will be pounded between hull planks with mallets and caulking irons in precise replication of original, oakum caulking.

Because the Morgan was built in the era before metal fasteners or screws, a volunteer is shaping 5,000 long thick pegs known as treenails (pronounced trunnels). They are fashioned from long-grain, knot-free black locust and will be driven through drilled holes to connect the Morgan's double-sawed frames to one another and to the hull planking.