Published July 30. 2014 7:45AM Updated July 31. 2014 11:59AM
New London — As the Charles W. Morgan nears the end of its historic 38th voyage, there is one person who isn’t quite ready to process the significance of it — its captain.
Capt. Richard “Kip” Files said the entire voyage has been a learning experience, from sailing the ship to meeting different people and stopping at various destinations.
“When I hand over the keys to the (Mystic) Seaport, I’ll take time to reflect on it,” he said Wednesday. “When it’s all over, I’ll know.”
The Morgan arrived with little fanfare Wednesday morning at City Pier, the last stop for the whaling ship before it returns home to Mystic Seaport. The ship arrived at the pier at 2 a.m., eight hours ahead of its estimated arrival time.
The ship, which left Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay, Mass., Tuesday morning, traveled more than 80 miles over nearly 15 hours. For the longest leg of its summer tour of New England ports, the Morgan was under tow the entire time.
Files said the ship hit rough seas in Rhode Island Sound around 2:30 p.m. Tuesday and the crew briefly considered docking at Newport, R.I., but then the seas calmed around 5:30 p.m. and they were greeted by favorable currents in the area of Watch Hill.
“A sailing vessel is not designed to sail into the wind,” said Files. “We had to slow down a lot.”
Files said the voyage taught him about how a whaling ship works, but there is still more to learn.
“There are things that are simply lost to history,” he said.
Files said it’s hard to imagine men boarding a 28-foot open rowboat and rowing to catch a whale.
“I bet you more got away than got caught,” he said.
It was the third time the Morgan has visited New London. It was here briefly in 1941 just before it arrived at the Seaport and again on May 17, when it started its 38th voyage.
The Morgan, at 173 years old, is the last of an American whaling fleet that once counted more than 2,700 ships in its ranks. It sailed on 37 voyages around the globe during an 80-year whaling career.
The Morgan underwent a nearly six-year, multimillion-dollar renovation at the Seaport.
The crew ate breakfast around 8:30 a.m. Wednesday and shortly thereafter began to remove materials — lines, chairs, buckets and barrels — from the hold. They used a block and tackle rig to hoist the items and place them on the dock.
Rachel Thomas-Shapiro, a sailing deckhand who has been on the Morgan on several legs of the voyage, was helping to unload the ship. She was on board Tuesday night and said the crew experienced rough seas getting out of Buzzards Bay into Rhode Island Sound.
“The ship was moving a lot,” said Thomas-Shapiro, who lives in Pawcatuck and is a teacher at The Williams School. “It was the first time I felt the ship move so much.”
Thomas-Shapiro said the experience of being on the ship was “awesome” but also “exhausting.”
“To see the ship come back to life was so gratifying,” she added.
Paul and Diane Tobin and their two sons, Joseph, 17, and Christopher, 20, were vacationing in the area and came by City Pier shortly after 9 a.m. Wednesday, hoping to see the Morgan come in. They were among the first people on the pier and were surprised to see it already there.
“We visited the ship when it was in drydock in Mystic,” said Diane Tobin, of Meriden. “It has a mystique to me. I’m taken by it. The age of it ... that’s what has taken me.”
Paul Tobin added that the ship has an aura about it that makes it unique.
“It’s alive,” he said. “It has all the souls of all the people that built it.”
The Tobins, however, wouldn’t be alone for long. Once word got out that the Morgan had arrived, visitors began to trickle down to City Pier.
Bill Tucker of Coventry, R.I., said he has been following the Morgan since the 1960s. As a member of the Seaport, he has seen the Morgan at its worst and now at its best.
“It’s great to see her in sailing condition,” he said.
Tucker said he went to Boston to see the Morgan while it was in port with the USS Constitution.
“She looked like a rowboat next to the Constitution,” Tucker said with a smile. “She was about half the size. It was beautiful seeing them together.”
The ship departed Mystic Seaport on May 17 and visited New London, Newport, R.I., Vineyard Haven, Mass., New Bedford, Mass., the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, Boston, and the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.
While in New London, the ship will head out onto Long Island Sound for three final day sails today, Friday and Saturday. The ship will not be open to the public during this time.
After the Morgan finishes its day sails, the crew will work on removing the extra ballast so it can make its way back up the Mystic River to the Seaport.
A homecoming celebration at Mystic Seaport is planned to begin at 5 p.m. Aug. 6.
Files was occasionally congratulated by onlookers as he stood on the pier Wednesday. He accepted well-wishes but also acknowledged that his job is not done.
“I’ll be happy when it’s over,” he said, “because I will have returned her safely.”