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Those Magnificent Maritime Museums


Across America, Maritime Museums are finding exciting new ways to help you relive America's seafaring past 

Tall Ships

The warmth of the sun and the fresh salt air were working their magic, and I felt myself sliding into that peaceful reverie that comes from sailing on a perfect summer's day. I was only vaguely aware, as we glided below the towering masts and spars of a square-rigged whaling ship, that my mind was having a little trouble correctly identifying the century I was sailing in.

Our captain was Ted Stanton, a radiation therapist who volunteers his weekends to introduce people to the magic of historic sailboats. "A hundred years ago," he said softly, as if not to break the spell, "these boats were the pickup trucks of the New England coastline". The "pickup truck" in which my fellow passengers and I were enjoying a leisurely summer cruise was the Breck Marshall, a lovely reproduction of a 19th century cat boat belonging to Connecticut's famous Mystic Seaport.

Mystic Seaport is just one of a growing number of Maritime Museums that offer visitors the chance to partake in exciting hands-on educational experiences that let them live and breath America's seafaring history.

MYSTIC SEAPORT

The largest of America's Maritime museums, Mystic Seaport's 17 acre site recreates a coastal New England village of the 1800's. Along the bustling waterfront, a cooper shop, dry good store and a dozen other historic shops and businesses offer daily demonstrations of crafts such as barrel making, boat building, sailmaking and printing. Under spreading shade trees, horse-drawn carriages wait to give visitors a tour along villages colorful streets.

The waterfront's star attraction, however, are the magnificent historic ships and boats that are part of Mystic Seaport's collection. The largest of these is the beautiful barque Charles W Morgan, built in 1841. The Morgan is last of America's once vast fleet of whaling ships and her lofty masts and yards are visible from virtually every part of the museum. The Morgan is also the stage for a lively sail handling demonstration that visitors can participate in. It begins as half a dozen nimble crew clamber sixty feet up the ratlines to unfurl a sail. On deck, eager volunteers are recruited from the crowd and are taught a chantey - a song sung in unison that helped sailors keep a rhythm and make the work go faster. Then its heave-and-away-me-boys as twenty or so laughing visitors haul together. After thirty or so hauls, the sail is up, and the visitors-come-deckhands can catch their breath. The guides point out that this is just one of the Morgan's eighteen sails, all of which needed constant raising, lowering and trimming in all types of weather during a sea voyage.

For those who yearn to get out on the water in historic style, Mystic Seaport offers tours are aboard the Sabino, an elegant turn-of the-century steamboat. If you take this tour, be sure to visit the lower level to watch the engineer as he stokes the coal fired boiler. It's a memorable slice of living history.

If you prefer to set you own course, the museum keeps a sparkling fleet of traditional rowing craft and daysailers in its boat livery. For a nominal fee these boats may be rented for an hour's or a day's excursion on the gentle waters of the Mystic River.

SOUTH STREET SEAPORT

A stone's throw from Manhattan's busy financial district, the masts and spars of the historic ships of South Street Seaport rise against the dramatic backdrop of glass and steel skyscrapers. South Street Seaport's maze of historic brick buildings are remnants of the once bustling New York waterfront that existed here in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when South Street was known as the "street of ships". At the docks, the largest of the museum's ships is the Peking, a huge, 347 foot, four-masted barque built in 1911. Today, it's the site of laughter and merriment as school children and adults alike get a chance to hoist one of the ship's massive sails, or to put their hands on the ships great wooden wheel and imagine rounding Cape Horn. Docked nearby, the three-masted Wavertree, built in 1885, is almost as large as the Peking. Currently under restoration, the Wavertree is used for school programs.

For those who have dreamed of building their own boat, the museum's boat building shop offers courses and demonstrations in traditional wooden boat building skills. The museum also offers daily sailing tours aboard the beautiful, century-old schooner Pioneer. This is an educational tour and onboard, museum staff share history of New York during the age of sail as the ship ghosts along past the Manhattan skyline. Visitors are encouraged to pitch in with the crew, raising and lowering the sails or handling lines.

South Street Seaport takes at least a day to explore. The Peking, Wavertree and Pioneer are just three of the museum's world-class collection of historic ships. Two of the ships are National Historic Landmarks: the Lettie G Howard, an 1893 clipper bowed fishing schooner, and the Ambrose, a famous lightship that for many years guided ships safely to the entrance of New York Harbor. There's also the W.O. Decker, a historic New York harbor tugboat; the Major General William H Hart, a 1925 steam ferry, and several others.

The museum's indoor exhibits include a fine shipmodel collection, a maritime artifacts collection and galleries set aside for traveling maritime exhibits.

 

MAINE MARITIME MUSEUM

Located on the banks of the lovely Kennebec river near Bath, The Maine Maritime Museum is housed in the Percy and Small Shipyards where, at the turn of the century, dozens of large sailing schooners were built. These are the last surviving wooden shipbuilding yards in the United States, and the museum traces the history of American Shipbuilding from The Revolutionary War to Modern times.

A guided tour of the museum starts at the mold shop, where stocking-footed workers once drew out patterns for huge ship frames on the smooth floor. Nearby stands the treenail (pronounced trunel) shop, where thousands of the wooden pegs used to fasten planking to ribs were produced. A large building houses the joinery shop where the fine woodworking of the ships interior was crafted, and below the joinery shop is the mill, whose massive saw transformed whole logs into ship timbers and planks.

One of the most fascinating buildings in the museum is the apprenticeshop, a real working boat building shop where visitors can watch as craftsmen busy themselves with the painstaking and almost lost art of building and restoring wooden boats.

The museum's waterfront area is a beehive of activity throughout the summer. There are regular demonstrations of sailmaking and ship launching. Visitors can tour several dockside vessels including the 142 foot Grand-Banks Schooner Sherman Zwicker, and the Maine, a traditional Pinky Schooner built in the museum's apprenticeshop. There are also regularly scheduled educational cruises aboard the museum's launch Summertime.

 

CHESAPEAKE BAY MARITIME MUSEUM.

Located in the historic village of St. Michaels on Maryland's picturesque eastern shore, Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum is dedicated to preserving the unique maritime history of America's largest estuary system.

The museum's collection of over eighty historic vessels includes two of the schooners called skipjacks that once fished the Chesapeake by the hundreds. A handful of these historic sailing vessels still fish the bay today, and are among the last working sailboats in America.

Covering eighteen acres, with eight historic buildings open to the public, the museum takes a full day to explore. In addition to the traditional fishing crafts and displays, there are also excellent exhibits that focus on the rise and fall of steamboat travel on the bay, and the steam engine exhibit is fascinating.

The museum's most popular attraction is the 1879 Hooper Straight Lighthouse, a lovely octagonal building overlooking the waterfront. Like many Chesapeake Bay lighthouses, it was designed to stand on stilts in the shallow water of the bay. The museum conducts a fascinating sleepover program in the lighthouse that gives visitors a taste of what a Chesapeake Bay lighthouse keeper's life was like.

The museum's special summer programs offer up fascinating fare, including ecology cruises aboard Mr. Jim, the museum's 51 foot replica of a Chesapeake Bay buyboat. Participants learn about the Chesapeake's unique ecology, taking water samples, collecting plankton and trying their hand at dredging oysters.

The Chesapeake Bay is crab country, and the museum holds a terrific crab festival in early August. There are crabbing demonstrations, crab races, boat rides, music and of course plenty of heaping trays of Chesapeake Bay crabs steamed in local blends of seasoning.



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This article continues, visiting the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, which keeps alive the notorious history of the Barbary Coast, and the eclectic Center for Wooden Boats, where the ultimate hands-on experience awaits visitors who can rent, or learn to sail in, the center's wonderful collection of historic watercraft.

Total word count: 1,860 words. Originally published by Coast to Coast Magazine in December, 1996

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