Connecticut has rich whaling history and at the center of that legend is celebrated Mystic Seaport. While we were excited to see this museum, it was expensive at $24 each, and we’ve been down this road before. Not much bang for the buck. But in this case, we found out it is definitely worth the cost! Definitely!
We arrived early, bought our tickets and got our wrist bands to wear for the day. We then asked about the exhibits and learned Mystic Seaport spans the entire harbor with an overwhelming amount to see.
We quickly walked over to the Henry B. Dupont Preservation Shipyard. Originally the site of an active and successful shipping industry, Mystic’s shipyard now acts as the preservation center, where the museum’s boats are faultlessly restored. An exhibit in one of the buildings provides an overview of how wooden boats were originally made. Of course fiberglass and plastic have made wooden boat building an artifact of a different time.
Following the exhibit, visitors can tour the gallery which gives a bird’s eye view of the working facility including carpenters’ shops, an amazing 85-foot spar lathe, a rigging loft and a large, open area where the Museum’s vessels are brought indoors for repair. Today, there were no boats inside as most of the museum’s staff and volunteers were preoccupied with the enormous three-year restoration of the world’s last wooden whaling ship – the Charles W. Morgan. But, more on that later!
Mystic Seaport is an entirely restored harbor featuring over four dozen restored buildings featuring everything from two restaurants to a wood carver, to a drug store, mercantile and more. The next exhibit, a demonstration on rope making was all the way across town, so we needed to hustle.
By the time we got to the clam shack, there was already a crowd forming. The demonstrator gave us a quick rundown on the types of rope, what they’re made and used for, and their coatings. But, to a certain extent, all ropes are made the same way. Individual fibers are gathered and into “yarn” using a rope making machine. Because rope makers often tended to tell tall tales while spinning the yarn, the art of the telling a story soon became known as “spinning a yarn!”
We then headed back over to the shipyard to visit the Charles W. Morgan we mentioned earlier. About halfway through its ambition restoration, the team has completed a great deal of the work inside and are preparing for a daunting winter-long restoration of the immense historic vessel. It is an amazing site to see firsthand for sure.
The restoration process is time consuming and meticulous, but the team is committed to the admirable accuracy that makes the progression worthwhile. Unfortunately, only a small part of the ship’s original wood remains, as all wooden boats begin to deteriorate when launched, and it’s a miracle that any of the Charles W. Morgan remains intact at all after nearly 180 years in the sea.
Again, we had to rush across town to the middle wharf for a whaling demonstration. When we first arrived, we didn’t see anyone waiting, but soon a man buttoned his vest and walked to the pier. Once there we were treated to a stirring acapella rendition of the famous whaling song “The Coast of Peru.” The white-bearded volunteer had the gruff looks of a whaler and the voice of an island crooner. After his resounding introduction, he handed things over to a petite young woman standing upon a tiny whaling boat who spent the next 15 minutes explaining in frightening detail the phases of a whale hunt.
At open sea, whalers may go weeks without seeing a whale, but as soon as one or a pod was spotted as many as five tiny boats would be launched to chase the whale. They would then sometimes trail the leviathan for miles before getting close enough to harpoon it. But, once they did, it was time for the Nantucket sleigh ride when the injured whale would explode across the water’s surface at top speed, sometimes pulling the boat at up to 30 knots. This is probably the reason why the whaling profession was often described as “long periods of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror.”
Once the sleigh ride was over, the officer would kill the whale by plunging the harpoon deep into the whale’s lung. The men would then row back to the awaiting crew who would cut the blubber and boil it down for oil. A boat would not return until the blubber hold was full and could stay out at sea anywhere from 1 to 5 years.
You could literally spend all weekend at Seaport, definitely a great place to learn about Connecticut’s amazing whaling history. For more information or to plan your trip – click here.