The sea mysteriously calls out to small boys. Living inland is no protection, as my father learned, so you might as well bring your boy to Mystic Seaport. And if you don't have a son or grandson, come anyway. Mystic will find the small boy in you.
We drove here from Philadelphia on a recent weekend, crossed the road from the parking lot and suddenly stepped into the 19th century. We were in a bustling seaport, the masts of sailing ships towering over the buildings, and everywhere exciting things were happening.
One nice thing about Mystic Seaport is that you can visit any time during the year and have a grand time. There are about 130 special activities each year: weekends for seniors in April; a lobsterfest weekend in May; a sea-music festival in June; a horse-and-carriage weekend and an antique-and-classic- boat rendezvous in July; a fish fry and family photo weekend in September; a chowderfest in October; family friendship weekends in November, and the Seaport Christmas throughout December.
You get the picture: A three-ring circus is small-time compared to Mystic.
A carriage ride from Chubb's Wharf took us around Mystic and helped us get our bearings. (A wagon takes passengers along the same route, but we'll always opt for elegance.) Our driver pointed out the 60 or so historic buildings on the 17-acre site, brought here and restored to re-create the feel of a New England seaport.
In most of the buildings, we discovered, something interesting was going on. Crafts workers were building small boats in the boat shop, making barrels in the cooperage and carving figureheads in the ship-carver's shop. Iron workers were busy in the shipsmith, sailmakers in the sail loft, printers at the Mystic Press. Oysters were being sorted in the Thomas Oyster House; fish were being preserved in the smoke house.
We stopped by the 1874 lifesaving station, which houses a coastal rescue boat and gear, examined the vintage dry goods and hardware in Stone's Store, saw the tiny desks at the one-room schoolhouse, sat in a pew at the little 1889 Gothic chapel, admired the Block Island hand pumper in the firehouse and inspected the bar in the sailors' tavern.
An interesting stop was the Henry B. du Pont Preservation Shipyard, which has the equipment and the craftsmen to perform any task required to restore and preserve wooden vessels. A lift dock with a 375-ton capacity can raise any of the seaport's ships out of the water. An 85-foot spar lathe can turn a new mast. In the large main shop, a gallery gives visitors a bird's-eye view of the activity. Other facilities are nearby - a lumberyard and sawmill, a metalworking shop and a paint shop.
All this was simply a prelude to seeing the stars at Mystic, the tall ships. The most famous is the bark Charles W. Morgan, the only wooden whaling ship still afloat, the last surviving square-rigged American ship of the 19th century. It was restored in the shipyard here, and it's a proud beauty. If it doesn't make your heart pound, then Kansas is the place for you.
Launched in 1841, the Morgan sailed out of New Bedford, Mass., making 37
voyages to the South Seas in search of whales. It was laid up in 1921, after petroleum and electricity made whale oil obsolete. It had a brief theatrical fling in the 1920s as the setting for silent films, including Down to the Sea in Ships, with Clara Bow, and Java Head.
After nearly perishing in the 1938 hurricane, the Morgan found a permanent home here on the eve of World War II. The Morgan has been designated a National Historic Landmark. To learn more about it, see the 30-minute film Whales, Whaling and Whalemen, shown four times a day at the Meeting House. The vintage footage is exceptional.
Other tall ships here include the 111-foot, full-rigged training ship Joseph Conrad, built in Denmark in 1882 and used in the seaport's sail- training program, and the 123-foot 1921 Gloucester fishing schooner L.A. Dunton, a veteran of the Grand Banks fishing fleet that Kipling immortalized in Captains Courageous. We boarded all three ships, climbed around, went below to inspect the crew's quarters, took pictures of ourselves at the wheel, and let our imaginations soar. In my mind, I was in the bow of the whaleboat, harpoon in hand, ready for a Nantucket sleigh ride when the harpooned whale made a run for it, dragging the boat along.
"You look strange," Margo, my companion, said. "Are you all right?" Of course I was all right. What do women know about these male fantasies, anyway?
We had a quick lunch at the Gallery near the entrance, and the food was fast and good. A hearty clam chowder, followed by fried flounder, seemed appropriate for the occasion. If you don't want to take the time for a proper lunch, you can get hot dogs, ice cream, lemonade, cookies and other snacks
from costumed vendors around the grounds. We can vouch for the freshness of the popcorn from the steam-powered vintage stand.
Over lunch we chatted about Mystic. Before the Civil War, Mystic yards built clipper ships, including the David Crockett, whose average performance on more than 25 runs around Cape Horn to San Francisco was never equalled. The town then was the home of prosperous merchants and fishing and whaling captains, but went into a decline when shipbuilding fell on hard times in the 1870s.
The Marine Historical Association Inc. was formed here in 1929 to establish a museum to preserve the remnants of America's maritime history. The name was changed in 1978 to Mystic Seaport Museum Inc. I objected to the word museum. Although Mystic has the artifacts and authenticity of a great museum, the word doesn't suggest the fun to be had here. I love museums, mind you, but I don't go to them for fun.
Enough! It was time to get out on the water. We boarded the 57-foot Sabino, a handsome 1908 coal-fired passenger steamboat, for a four-hour cruise on the river. It was a perfect way to get a closer look at some of the other jewels in the seaport's collection of 400 or so historic vessels.
Beauties that caught our eye included the two-masted Sharpie, the oyster sloop Nellie, the Noank smack Emma C. Berry, the Friendship sloop Estella A. and the exquisite 61-foot yacht-schooner Brilliant. More boats are on display in the small-boat exhibit and the north boat shed.
Our favorite, though, was the handsome but odd-looking Annie, a survivor of a long-forgotten class called Sandbaggers that once raced for big money on Long Island Sound. They were 29-footers but were allowed to carry as much sail as they could handle. The Annie, with a long, downward-curved wooden bowsprit and a bumpkin (pronounced boom-kin), could carry as much sail as a 60-footer. To keep it from capsizing, its crew of 14 kept busy moving sandbags around the cockpit.
There are alternative ways to get out on the water. Sailors may hire a 12- foot Beetlecat at the Lighthouse Point Boat House; for landlubbers, there are classic wooden rowboats. Both are excellent craft for exploring the harbor.
If you have children in tow, tow them to the hands-on Children's Museum to see the collection of 19th-century toys and games. They can assemble small hulls, masts and sails and launch their creations in an old claw-footed
bathtub. A special area for the under-7 set has replicas of century-old children's clothing they can try on.
Everybody enjoys the planetarium. The evening show is followed by stargazing through telescopes on the lawn. A computer in the lobby gives a simple introduction to steering by the stars. Classes are offered in celestial navigation, dead reckoning and astronomy.
Mystic is in the education business in a big way. It is the home of the Frank C. Munson Memorial Institute of American Maritime Studies, which gives graduate-level courses in American maritime history. Undergraduates come here for the semester-long Williams College-Mystic Seaport program, to study maritime history, art, literature, oceanography and marine biology.
High school groups come on day trips, and seaport teachers visit area classrooms. Some lucky teenagers stay aboard the Joseph Conrad for a while, learning the fundamentals of sailing, small-boat safety and other maritime subjects.
I found some special places at Mystic. In the Wendell Building was a superb exhibit of figureheads and ship carvings and a display of ship models, scrimshaw and marine and ship paintings and prints.
I spent a happy hour browsing in the G.W. Blunt White Library, one of the greatest maritime libraries anywhere. Its collection includes 60,000 books and periodicals, 500,000 manuscripts, 7,000 maps and charts and an archive of oral-history tapes.
My other find was the Mystic Seaport Stores and Gallery next to the
entrance. You won't find the usual souvenirs there (they're in the Variety Store across from the village green), but for something truly special, this is the place. A bookstore offers a large selection of marine books. Sailors can shop for clothing and foul-weather gear.
The Gallery has ship models, prints, paintings, wood carvings and sculpture that range in price from several hundred to many thousands of dollars. I lusted after a carving of an eagle and a masterful model of the USS Constitution, but they would have set me back about $12,000, and that's farther back than I care to go.
In the cool of the evening, we went to the village green to hear the Silver Cornet Band. The day had been long, and we were pleasantly tired. As we relaxed, I made the mistake of looking at the list of the day's events. We had missed more than we had seen.
Where were we when the wheel-boat demonstration was going on? Or the Dead Horse Ceremony, whatever that was? Margo would have enjoyed the 19th-century garden tour. I was of two minds about the Breeches Buoy Rescue, but I certainly would have liked the lecture "Scrimshaw: The Folk Art of the Whaleman."
"We are coming back here," I said as we were leaving. "I don't want an argument. We are coming back here."
"Yes, little boy, we'll come back."
Now what did she mean by that?
HOW TO GO, HOW TO GET INFORMATION
To drive to Mystic Seaport, take the New Jersey Turnpike to the George Washington Bridge exit, cross the bridge, pick up the Cross Bronx Expressway to the New England Thruway (Interstate 95).
Mystic Seaport is one mile south of Exit 90 on Route 27. Parking is free in two large lots across from the entrance. The trip is about 250 miles. Allow extra time to compensate for possible construction delays on I-95.
Admission is $14 for adults, $8.75 for ages 6 to 15, free for children 5 and under. The seaport offers various membership plans that lower the price of admission. Admission includes all activities, except the carriage and wagon rides, boat rentals and rides on the steamer Sabino. The seaport and most of its attractions are accessible to the handicapped.
Mystic Seaport is open every day of the year except Christmas. From now until April 8, the hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; from April 8 to June 13, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; June 24 to Sept. 2, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sept. 3 to Oct. 27, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Oct. 28 to April 5, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The restaurant at the Gallery is open the same hours as the seaport.
For booklets and a schedule of events or the answers to specific questions, write to Mystic Seaport Museum, Box 6000, Mystic, Conn. 06355-0990, or phone 203-572-0711.
The Mystic Marinelife Aquarium (Coogan Boulevard, exit 90 of I-95; 203-536-3323) has about 6,000 specimens from around the world, and performances by sea lions, dolphins and whales. Open daily except New Year's Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Wheelchair access.
There is a wide selection of motels, bed and breakfasts, marinas and campgrounds in Mystic and neighboring communities. A list of accommodations is included in the packet of material from the seaport.
Two excellent restaurants are nearby, the Fisherman (Groton-Long Point Road, Noank; four miles south of exit 88 of I-95 on Route 215 (phone 203-536-1717), and Flood Tide in the Inn at Mystic, on Route 27 just north of I-95 (phone 203-536-8140). Both are moderately priced.