MYSTIC, CONN. — It’s hard to know the exact scene at Jethro and Zachariah Hillman’s New Bedford shipyard in the winter of 1841, when the whaling ship Charles W. Morgan was being built. But it must have looked and sounded a little bit like the shipyard at Mystic Seaport on Monday: riggers laboring over the rigging, shipwrights crouched on the ship’s deck working on caulking, voices reaching above the din of tools.
More than 170 years after the wooden ship first set sail, and nearly 100 years after her last whaling trip, the Morgan’s 38th voyage is fast approaching. Fully restored, she will set sail again May 17 for a six-week educational voyage. She will visit the Vineyard in June.
While the Morgan represents the golden age of whaling in America, the ship’s restoration revives tools and trades that, like whaling, had faded into history.
The large restoration project began in 2008 at Mystic Seaport’s Henry B. duPont Preservation Shipyard.
The ship had been restored and parts of it rebuilt over the years, according to Morgan historian Matthew Stackpole. Salt water is a preservative, so the bottom of the ship was well-preserved, while the top part needed to be rebuilt starting in the 1880s, when she was about 40 years old. She was also rebuilt above the waterline in the 1980s.
“From the waterline down had not been touched,” Mr. Stackpole said at the shipyard Monday. The first year or so of work was essentially an archaeological dig, he said, devoted to carefully recording and photographing how the ship was constructed. “When planks were taken off, we were looking at something nobody had seen since the winter of 1841 . . . we were able to look at the original ship, the original construction, we could see the tool marks.”
There are no original plans for the Morgan, or a record of how she was built. “We’ve got the record now,” Mr. Stackpole said.
About 18 per cent of the original ship now remains. She was given about 280 new futtocks (curved timbers that form the ribs of the ship), 70 new ceiling planks and 168 new planks in the hull. In the ship’s hold, the original planks are easy to spot among the newer pieces of wood.
The Morgan was launched in the summer of 2013, and on Monday, she was both a worksite and an attraction, with construction continuing as visitors boarded the ship and looked around.
On board, key features show the ship’s underlying industrial function: a brick tryworks where whale blubber would have been rendered into precious oil; the hold at the bottom of the boat where pieces of wood were long-ago carved to fit the shape of a barrel full of whale oil; and the wooden davits curving off the deck, ready to secure whaleboats.
This week the project was reaching a milestone: the rigging of the ship, a complicated, choreographed effort.
On Monday, Matthew Otto, the lead rigger, was preparing to dress the ship and put up the spars.
“We’re dressing all the gear today and then we’ll be hanging it this week,” he said. Riggers were laying out the materials on the dock beside the ship, making sure everything was in the right place before installation. Later in the week, using a crane, the heavy spars and the rigging were guided into place.
Rigging work was done in the shipyard’s rigging loft, a cozy second-story space filled with piles of coiled rope and wires and smelling of tar. Wire is covered with tar, canvas and marline.
The Morgan’s sails will be put on in New London, Conn., Mr. Stackpole said. A new suit of sails — in all 13,000 square feet of sail — was made in Maine.
He said the work has revived skills and equipment that were last used a few generations ago.
“You have to have a lot of skill to use this type of equipment,” Mr. Stackpole said, motioning to a display featuring an adze, a tool used to carefully shape wood.
“This is absolutely the way they would do it in the 19th century,” he added.
In the workshop, the ship’s jib-boom — a piece of wood that extends the length of the bowsprit — was ready for installation. Nearby was a newly-constructed whale boat, one of several made for the 38th voyage. (One was made at the Gannon and Benjamin shipyard in Vineyard Haven and could be seen afloat at Mystic on Monday.)
Metal work was also made on site.
Outside, master shipwright Roger Hambridge headed toward the ship carrying his handmade tools, some dating to the 1970s. The tools themselves connect Mr. Hambridge and others with shipwrights who actually worked on whaling ships.
Mr. Hambridge showed off the sharp sound made by his mallet, which is made from live oak, a hardwood. He would use some of those tools Monday for caulking, which was done with cotton and oakum, a hemp fire treated with pine tar.
Shipwright Matthew Barnes was at the bow of the ship working on the head rail, a narrow piece of wood extending from the side of the ship out to the gold billet head.
“We tried to have the last work that was done on anything on the ship done by hand,” Mr. Stackpole said, to make the visible parts of the ship look as authentic as possible.
The Morgan’s 38th voyage will retrace part of her history, as the ship makes her way to old whaling ports of call. And at Mystic Seaport, shipwrights and riggers, too, are following in the steps of their forebears.
“The skills and knowledge about how to do this kind of work is being passed on to a whole new generation of shipwrights,” Mr. Stackpole said.