Sea Oats

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Mystic Seaport - Stepping Into the Living Past

Mystic  Seaport

You are standing at the rail of your ship as she races home with a bone in her teeth. Gone almost two years, you can smell land even though it is only smudge on the horizon. With every smooth rise and fall of the hull, you know you are getting closer. The crew is oddly quite. No boisterous calls of land ho, but everyone knows where they are now.

Soon the ship rests in her slip. Sailors make their way down the gangplank, many headed for their homes in Mystic, Connecticut, others to lodgings at the inns and taverns and yet others head to distant cities to try to find another berth. As you leave her, you throw a glance over your shoulder. You smile a bit, good to be home and now you're leaving the ship that has been your home for so long and has carried you half way around the world.

As much as the crew needs rest and time to refresh themselves, so do the ships that carried them to far-flung parts of the world, past the places where the charts tell them, "There be monsters here."

At Mystic Seaport, the Henry B. duPont Preservation Shipyard is where you can watch artisans restore antique vessels using traditional methods and tools. Logs and rough wood planking are delivered to the yard where craftsmen work with traditional tools to shape the wood and make the iron fittings for the ships that lay alongside the wharfs.

I wandered around the yard, looking at the various shops where children can make their own model ships to where actual parts are made and repaired for the museum's collection of old boats and ships. Since it was cold the day I visited, I followed my nose to a building with a place to burn real wood. I figured this would be a great place to get warm. I found more than I bargained for. Inside was William "Bill" Scheer. Mr. Scheer is one of the blacksmiths who works in the yard. He is also an instructor for various blacksmithing classes, both here and at a nearby college.

Bill showed me around the shop. The variety of tools was overwhelming, but he seemed to know what each is used for and how to maintain it. They have a hand run drill press that Bill estimates to over 100 years old. "Keep the fly wheel well oiled and tighten things as they need and the tools will last a long time. " The proof is here in this shop.

At first, I thought the blacksmith shop was just an exhibit, but Bill told me quite simply that for the yard and boats in her, "We make what we need," said Bill. Deceptively simple. They make the drift pins for the keel, the fittings for the mast hoops and every other metal fitting that may be needed. Bill spent time going over the various tools and the fittings for the ship. I could not have asked for a better presentation. A group of schoolchildren came in and Bill's face lit up like one of his forges. These kids were luckier that they knew. Bill and I shook hands and parted company.

As I made my way through the yards, I came across the woodshed. Outside, but in a covered area, was a huge band saw. Men were sawing full sized logs into rough planking that would soon find its way to the Charles W Morgan, which had pulled from the water to be refitted. There is an incredible amount of work that needs to be done before the lumber is taken to the ship itself and then even more is needed to fit each piece perfectly. The open sea is no place to find a plank that doesn't fit as she should and is now letting in water. These careful craftsmen and women will make sure the vessel will be ready for the Roaring 40's should he captain wish to take her there to pursue the whales that lie on the other side of the world.

"The "crown jewel" of Mystic Seaport's collection, the Charles W. Morgan has outlived all others of her kind. Built in 1841 at the yard of Jethro and Zachariah Hillman in New Bedford, MA, the Morgan is America's last surviving wooden whaleship and a precious piece of maritime history.

The Morgan's overall length is 113 feet, with a 27-foot 6-inch beam and depth of 17 feet 6 inches. Her main truck is 110 feet above the deck; fully-rigged, and she is capable of carrying approximately 13,000 square feet of sail. The huge try-pots used for converting blubber into whale oil are forward; below are the cramped quarters in which her officers and men lived for years at a time."

The above two paragraphs are from the Mystic Seaport pages ( )

We now understand how wrong whaling is and have stopped the process in most places through out the world. But if you have an interest in America's nautical heritage, this is a place you must visit. The friendly staff and the wonderful exhibits will take you back to a bygone era.

The Charles Morgan is now in dry dock for refitting and should be back in the water in 2013.(Quality workmanship takes time after all.) So please call ahead to see what exhibits might not be open. As of now, you can still board the Morgan while she undergoes refitting.

There are many exhibits to ignite the imagination of young seafarers and displays and real ships to board for old sailors and those that love the sea. This is a must see exhibit.

I would go a little earlier in the year. I went in October and the wind coming off the water was a little bit chilly for this South Florida boy. But don't miss it just because it's winter if that's the only time you can go.

A roving you should go, matey.

A thing about Connecticut drivers. They love to tailgate. They'll change lanes just to tailgate. And I know tailgating being from here. Just be aware of it as it can be a little unnerving on the many two lane roads in the area.

Contact info:
Mystic Seaport
P.O. Box 6000
75 Greenmanville Avenue
Mystic, CT 06355-0990

Phones:  General Information: 860.572.5302 or 888.973.2767
Visitor Services: 860.572.0711