Mystic Seaport Enthralls As Living History Museum of "America and the Sea"
By Karen Rubin

Heaving ho to the rhythmic phrases of the sea chantey intoned by Don Sineti, men, women and children manage to hoist a 1,300-lb. whaleboat onto the Charles Morgan, the last whaling ship still afloat. "A good chantey is worth 10 men on the line," he says, when the work is done. These men would put to sea for years at a time, and "one-two-three" would have quickly lost its ability to motivate, he says, but joining in the singing of the chantey, they would use their collective breath to pull more effectively.

It was on such a ship, the Acushnet, that Herman Melville signed on in 1841 as an ordinary seaman, and heard the story of the Essex, a ship that sunk after being rammed twice by a sperm whale, and, separately, of a great white sperm whale called Mocha Dick, which became his model for Moby Dick. We learn this when we stop in at the Chandlery, a kind of supermarket for supplies for the whalers including food, drinking water, equipment, even the agents to hire a crew.

Life on board the whaler, as we come to learn during our visit to Mystic Seaport, America's premier living history maritime museum, was so harsh, it is understandable that Melville jumped ship and to avoid being sent to prison, joined the U.S. Navy to get out of his contract.

Just rowing the whaleboat was a complex interaction where the first mate's insults to the crew were part of the regime, finally, yelling "Stand up and give it to her."

We see the art and technique and sheer might of harpooning the whale, and how the whalers could be taken for a "Nantucket sleigh ride," when the whale pulls the whaleboat (really an oversized rowboat) through the water, sometimes 24 miles away from the mother ship. Once the whale died, it would generally float, and the whalers would have to row back to the mother ship, dragging the whale; rowing at the rate of one mile an hour, this could mean another 24 hours of rowing.

Walking through the Charles Morgan, down into the decks to see the "blubber room" and the crew's quarters where dozens of men would live for years at a time, feeling the pitch of the ship even though it was docked, was tremendous. The intrepid demonstration squad climbs high in the ship's rigging to show the dangerous tasks performed by sailors at sea.

Two other tall ships, the 1921 Gloucester fishing schooner L.A. Dunton, and the 1882 Danish training vessel Joseph Conrad, also are open to visits.

The theme of whaling permeates the village because it was so important to the economy of Mystic in the 19th century, and even to the country. In those days, before electricity, whale oil was the key source of fuel. This was high tech for its time and it is absolutely fascinating to see the technology and the craft.

Mystic Seaport on Connecticut's shore (just short of the Rhode Island border), is an entire 19th century village alive with the sights, sounds and smells of maritime America. You wander around and come serendipitously upon things that are fascinating and mundane at the same time. Things you would not even think about. There is a shop near the Charles Morgan that sells hoops-these are the wood fasteners that support the sails and rigging, and it involved a steam box and piston engine to bend the wood to shape. Special shipsmiths (like blacksmiths) created the tools needed by the whalers.

I loved the Drug Store and the doctor's office where you can see a jar of leeches (a popular treatment) and the remarkable feature of a pitcher and bowl of water, showing that the ease of transportation created broader exposure to new ideas and influences, with the result that doctors became more aware of the importance of cleanliness. In the chapel, you can hear a temperance sermon that was delivered on July 31, 1890; and you can visit the one-room school house

At the newspaper office, where we learned that it took a full week to produce a four-page edition (the copies had to be printed on one side, then laid out to dry before they could print the second side) and that a subscription of $1 a year was sizeable, considering the typical wage was 10 to 20 cents an hour. The small bank-not much bigger than the vault, which was the essential feature--was the most fire resistant building in the village and was where captains would store their ship's papers. With every bank in the land issuing its own bank notes, this quickly became very cumbersome and lead to the Federal Reserve system. There is even a small Planetarium, where you can also see some of the early navigational devices.

The shipyard area is a "working exhibit" where you can witness firsthand the nearly lost art of wooden shipbuilding. We were lucky enough to see some extra touches being applied to the 129-foot freedom schooner, Amistad, which was built here (it now sails out of New Haven); there is also an excellent exhibit and video about the history of this ship, "Voyage to Freedom," the slaves who mutinied in 1839 and their court battle (they were charged with piracy and murder); ultimately regaining their freedom after a Supreme Court decision.

Mystic Seaport has a collection of nearly 500 boats and ships, the largest of historic vessels in the world. You can wander into various workshops to learn about the boat making process.

There are numerous collections-anchors, timepieces, figureheads, foghorns, ship carvings, ship's wheels, scrimshaw, trophies, weapons, whaling gear, manuscripts, sound records including 400 oral history interviews; it houses over 1 million photographs and images.

The newest exhibit is Voyages: Stories of America and the Sea, its most ambitious one ever to depict the pervasive influence the sea has had on everyday life in America, even for those who live far from the shore. Galleries include art and objects, history and natural history that really personalize the experience on the sea in a variety of contexts: the slaves that were forcibly brought by ships, immigrants who came for a better life, fishermen and whalers who made their livelihood on the sea (even a young girl who sailed with her mother and father on a whaling ship), merchantmen and trade, Navy life (including a moving display of a young man who died in World War II). In a video gallery, I saw the most amazing film of an actual whaling expedition, following the words of Melville's Moby Dick. There are a host of interactive computer stations, and Inspiration Station, an activity center for children offering arts, crafts and participatory drama.

Mystic Seaport, which was founded in 1929, tells its story about the sea in a very moving, dramatic way that captivates adults and children alike. Children will be enthralled by storytelling, and the many indoor spaces such as the "Children's Museum" geared to children 7 and under where they can swab a deck, move cargo, cook in the galley, dress in sailors' garb, and try out the sailors bunks; Discovery Barn, a hands-on exhibit for kids 8-108. Children can also join the crew and celebrate "Dead Horse Ceremony" on the Joseph Conrad, when they sing a sea chantey, help carry a stuffed canvas horse around the deck and watch it splash in the river, then get to set the sail. During a telling of "A Tale of a Whaler," (a piece of "museum theater" written by City Stage of Boston) youngsters take on the part of the tumultuous tides.

Kids can also get a chance to walk on stilts, roll hoops, play with whimmy diddles and buzz saws, and splash up to their elbows in a toy boat tank.

You can even take to the water yourself, cruising the Mystic River aboard the steamship Sabino, or renting a small boat to row or sail. There are also sailing school programs for children offered.

Throughout the village, there are 100 historians, musicians, storytellers, craftspeople and daredevils who comprise the interpretation staff who answer questions. A handful of first-person "role players" who are in costume and character, engage visitors in a "period discussion" of life on sea and shore, but most provide a modern day perspective and understanding, in terms that are relevant today. There are also excellent written descriptions; there is also a marvelous self-guided audio tour on a programmable player, so you key in where you are (by number), and can hear a description of that area ($3.50).

There are three restaurants to choose from: the Seamen's Inne, the Galley and the Schaefer-Spouter Tavern.

Mystic Seaport is open year-round, and offers a calendar rich in special events. One annual event commemorates Herman Melville's birthday: an annual marathon reading of Moby Dick, all 135 chapters, that begins on noon on Monday, July 31 and continues throughout the night and concludes at noon on Tuesday, Aug. 1 when a great white birthday cake appears. Seaport events that are coming up: October-Chowderfest; November--extends the Thanksgiving holiday with Mystic Seaport Field Days, with wagon rides, games on the green, hot cider and festive songs of the sea. A very special annual tradition are the Lantern Light Tours, during December (check dates), scheduled from 5-9:15 p.m. nighttime traveling dramas featuring costumed characters who lead you aboard the tall ships and in historic buildings (reservations are required and tickets can be purchased beginning Oct. by calling 888-9SEAPORT).

Mystic Seaport, located one mile south of Interstate 95 at Exit 90 in Mystic, is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. April through October, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. November through March (plan on spending the better part of a day). General admission is $17/adults, $9 children 6-12 (if you validate your admission on the first day, you can return the second day at no charge; there is so much to see, this is an excellent idea, particularly to break it up for young children). If you plan to return even once more in the year, it is well worth it to get the family admission (can even save money on the first trip): $60 for a family (which also entitles you to discounts at the store and unlimited admission throughout the year). Call 888-9SEAPORT or visit www.mysticseaport.org. Mystic & More! Mystic Seaport is very much the centerpiece of an area appropriately promoted as "Mystic & More." There is so much to do in the Mystic area, two days just wasn't enough. The Mystic Aquarium is phenomenal (open daily 9-6 p.m. in summer; plan on spending about three to four hours. $15/adult, $14/seniors, $10/ children 3-12; Exit 90 off I-95, 860-572-5955, www.mysticaquarium.org). We kept having to pass by the historic ship Nautilus and the Submarine Force Museum at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton and we had no time at all to visit historic downtown New London. There are scores of small historic attractions, like the Nathan Hale Schoolhouse (the Revolutionary war hero taught here before going off on his fateful spying mission), the 1833 Robert Mills U.S. Custom House Museum, not to mention Ocean Beach Park, vineyards, winery, arts centers and galleries.

Children's activities abound: Project Oceanology, a floating classroom on Long Island Sound, 2 hour adventure, 800-364-8472, www.oceanology.org; Water Wizz, in Westerly Rhode Island, a water park on Misquamicut Beach (401-322-0520, www.visitri.com/waterwizz), Science Center of Eastern Connecticut, New London (860-442-0391); Enchanted Forest, a children's theme park (Hope Valley, RI, 401-539-7711); Essex Steam Train and Riverboat, Essex (860-767-0103, www.valleyrr.com), Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, Mystic, a 200 acre sanctuary with seven miles of hiking trails, excellent birding (860-536-1216), and Children's Museum of Southeastern Connecticut, Niantic (860-691-1111, http://childmuseumsect.conncoll.edu)

There are scores of accommodations to choose from, quaint inns and bed-and-breakfasts, to chain hotels.

We greatly enjoyed the hotel we stayed at, the Holiday Inn-New London/Mystic, right off the I-95 (at Exit 84), which as it turns out, is owned by one of the developers of the Mohegan Sun, Len Wolman. We found there was a very convenient free shuttle bus service between the hotel and both the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods casinos. It provided a marvelous base from which to explore the Mystic area and it was only a 10 minutes ride to Mystic Seaport and Aquarium.

We were greatly impressed with the high level of quality, service and pleasant design features offered by the Holiday Inn, as well as that extra attention to detail and guest comfort. We especially loved the outdoor lap pool which was so pleasant in the evening after spending the day sightseeing. There is also an exercise room, a clever coffee and muffin bar in the morning, in addition to a lovely restaurant and a sports bar.

The spacious room was outfitted with two queen-size beds, coffee maker, refrigerator, alarm clock, remote TV with HBO and access for Nintendo and first run movies, even an iron and ironing board and hairdryer (860-442-0631, holiday@connix.com).

Mystic and More! Is aptly named. There is so much to do. This is very much a year-round destination-I can imagine how magnificent the area is during fall foliage, the peacefulness of winter (indeed, the winter holidays offer some extraordinary events, like the Lantern Light Tours of Mystic Seaport, in December), and then the pastel colors of spring.

For more information, contact Mystic & More, 800-TO ENJOY, www.mysticmore.com.

Photo caption: Don Sineti sings a chantey as sailors make ready the whaleboat beside the Charles Morgan, the last whaling ship still afloat, at Mystic Seaport ( Karen Rubin 2001).

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