Published May 13. 2014 4:00AM Updated May 13. 2014 11:55PM
Mystic — When it needs to restore a national landmark, Mystic Seaport knows who to call.
The museum, restorer of the Charles W. Morgan, the planet's last surviving wooden whaleship, has been putting together a network of foresters, riggers, sailmakers and the like since the 1990s, when plans for a major overhaul of the Morgan first began to crystallize.
In 2003, fundraising and "materials acquisition" for what would become a $12 million project began in earnest, according to Quentin Snediker, the Seaport's shipyard director.
A decade later, the refurbished Morgan was returned to the water in a Seaport ceremony last July. And Saturday, it'll be moved to New London for a final outfitting in advance of its 38th voyage, its first since 1921.
The Seaport had little problem tapping suppliers, Snediker said, since it had begun establishing contacts all over the country from the very start, even before the Morgan arrived in Mystic in 1941.
In recent decades, Seaport shipwrights have restored the L.A. Dunton, a fishing schooner, and the Roann, a dragger.
"We know foresters and various vendors because we've been doing this for 75 years," Snediker said. "We're continuously buying woods. A lot of acquisition is opportunity-based, especially when you're talking about a vessel the size of the Morgan."
In striving to approximate the Morgan's original state, the Seaport sought wood of the same size and quality as the "virgin" timber used in the 1841 whaler's construction.
Tropical storms have been a boon for years, with Hurricanes Hugo (1989), Ivan (2004), Katrina (2005) and Ike (2008) and Superstorm Sandy (2012) all answering calls for live oak, white oak and other types of wood.
Department of Transportation officials in South Carolina, which was ravaged by Hugo, still call Snediker whenever the department has to remove a stand of live oak in connection with a highway project.
"I'll go down and work with the contractor who's taking down the trees," Snediker said. "Live oak is indestructible, so we can stockpile it. For them (South Carolinians) to know what it's being used for is compensation enough."
After Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, the Seaport heard from dozens of individuals who offered uprooted trees, eventually providing the Seaport with more than 300 tons of wood, Snediker said.
White oak and black locust used in the Morgan's framing and trunnels (tree nails, or wooden pegs) came from Connecticut lumberyards, while longleaf pine used for planking came from Florida and Georgia. The New York Botanical Garden turned over white oak and white pine that Sandy had knocked down.
A particularly fortuitous set of circumstances occurred in 2010 when excavators working on a hospital construction project near the site of the former Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston came upon a trove of old shipbuilding logs stored in an underground basin. The contractor on the job called Snediker.
"We were halfway through the (Morgan's) framing," the shipyard director recalled. "The wood had been laying there for 99 years. Most of it was still good, each piece an artifact in itself."
University of Arizona dendrochronologists - scientists who study tree rings - determined that white oak found at the Boston site had been cut down in northern Ohio between 1863 and 1868 and had begun growing in the late 16th century.
In another case of serendipity, the Seaport's lead shipwright, Rob Whalen, followed a trail of contacts from Baltimore to Georgia to Tennessee, where he secured a cache of wrought iron bars salvaged from old tiger cages at the Memphis Zoo. Seaport shipsmiths used the iron to fashion fittings used in reconstructing the Morgan's hull.
"We acquired all this bar stock from a gentleman in Memphis who gave us a very generous deal," Whalen said. "It was exactly what we needed."
Using iron rather than steel, which rusts much faster, is a big advantage in hull construction, he said.
The quest for authentic materials ensured the Morgan restoration would take on an international as well as a national scope. Seaport rigger Matt Otto arranged the delivery of hemp from suppliers in Hungary, Russia and the United States, while master sailmaker Nat Wilson sewed sails of cotton fabric from India in his shop in East Boothbay, Maine.
Boatbuilding schools and organizations from around the country have contributed 10 whaleboats to the project, seven of which the Morgan will carry at any one time during its 38th voyage. The 28-foot, double-ended rowboats have been built to specifications issued by the Seaport, whose own former shipwright, Willits Ansel, wrote the definitive book on the subject, "The Whaleboat," in the 1970s.
In the whaling era, such boats carried a crew of six, harpoons, lines and other gear.
The list of whaleboat builders includes The Apprenticeshop, a boatbuilding school in Rockland, Maine; the Great Lakes Boatbuilding School in Cedarville, Mich.; the Rocking the Boat School in New York City; the Independence Seaport Museum and the Wooden Boat Factory, both in Philadelphia; the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vergennes, Vt.; and the Alexandria (Va.) Seaport Foundation.
Three Massachusetts organizations supplied boats: Lowell's Boat Shop in Amesbury, the Beetle Boat Co., which contracted with the New Bedford Whaling Museum; and Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway on Martha's Vineyard.
Snediker, the shipyard director, estimated about $3 million was spent acquiring materials for the Morgan restoration while another $250,000 worth was donated.
What the Seaport couldn't find, its own craftsmen made, he said.