Published May 24. 2014 5:46PM Updated May 25. 2014 12:12AM
New London — Families lined up at City Pier Saturday to step aboard the newly restored whaleship Charles W. Morgan, which was open to the public for the first time since it arrived in the Whaling City last week.
The visitors took pictures of one another standing at the helm and asked questions, it seemed, about every piece of wood, metal or fabric on board. They got a tiny taste of what it would feel like at sea aboard the world’s only surviving wooden whaling vessel as it rocked gently in the wake of a passing ferry.
Three generations of the Legg family of Niantic were among the first to walk the gangplank, and they went on twice because it was “so cool,” according to Jeff Legg, who was with his wife and three children and his parents.
Crew members, Mystic Seaport staff and volunteers, thrilled the 1841 whaler is on the move again after more than 70 years, were happy to explain how whale blubber was cut up and rendered into whale oil or how the ship’s knees, or braces, are constructed of live oak. They cheerfully helped people board the smaller boats like those the whaler’s crew used to approach and harpoon sperm whales and manned the on-shore exhibits. Over and over again, they uttered the phrase, “once in a lifetime.”
“Some of us were on there this morning and we were ready to cry,” said Cathy Hingerty, a museum educator at Mystic Seaport. “Just to see it in all its glory was amazing.”
The ship has undergone a 5½-year restoration and will be fully outfitted while docked in New London. Sea trials are set to begin June 7 in Long Island Sound, and on June 14, the Morgan is scheduled to set out for a two-month tour of New England ports.
Audrey Manning of Buffalo, N.Y., a volunteer and experienced sailor, said she will be on board for part of the upcoming voyage and is “beyond excited.”
“I can’t wait to get my hands on the lines,” she said. “No one alive has ever sailed her. That’s what makes it so exciting.”
Volunteer Lester Palifka of Vernon sat below deck readying a piece of rigging — “whipping” it so it wouldn’t unravel, he said — and basking in the opportunity to be part of the ship’s living history. The 64-year-old mechanical engineer is so enamored of the Charles W. Morgan that he has two tattoos of her on his forearms and is building a model of her at home. Palifka said he first saw the Morgan in 1959, when he was 9 years old. At the point, he said, the ship was “a derelict.”
“I’ve watched her my whole life, through all her transformations,” he said. Over the past few years, he was amazed to watch shipwrights and other craftsmen restore the boat.
While the restorers worked hard to keep the ship authentic, Capt. Richard “Kip” Files said several modern features were added, including lighting and navigation equipment, modern bilge pumps and batteries and a diesel fueled generator.
“Every trip this vessel went out differently,” Files said. “From 1900 to 1916, there were huge changes. If they had a radio, they would have gone with one.”
In a century, he said, visitors might marvel that people once used fossil fuel.
The ship and dockside exhibition will be open again today, on May 31 and June 1.