Picture yourself perched atop of a mast some 110 feet above the deck of a boat in heavy seas, swaying from port to starboard, rocking from bow to stern and any direction in between. Your feet clinging to a small plank with your legs fitted through two hoops, for relative stability. All while dutifully observing for hazards of navigation. This was the job of a lucky member of the crew of the last wooden whaleship in the world, Charles W. Morgan. And you can appreciate the difficult job these sailors performed from the safety of her deck during a sunny June morning while on a field trip with your kids to Mystic Seaport, CT.
The proximity of our area to the water makes boating a popular pastime for many in Fairfield County and the rest of us surely admire the great leisure land-based water-related activities that our beachfront location provides. So taking the kids to a nautical history museum, like Mystic Seaport, seems like a no-brainer. And it is.
Getting there is easy, just follow I-95 until you're almost in Rhode Island, to exit 90, and after about a mile through town you are there. Plan for about a two-hour trip, sans traffic, and a whole day there, if you want to enjoy most of what the museum offers. I honestly can't see how you can see and take advantage of everything, or at least most, of what that place has in one day. Especially with kids. But being there when they open at 10 a.m. and staying until closing at 5 p.m. should give you enough time to check out a lot, without rushing and, of course, with a quick stop for lunch.
We ended up at Mystic Seaport just after high noon and having had lunch already we were ready to explore.
The main building houses the reception area and a gallery featuring exhibits that change regularly throughout the year. After paying admission and getting your admission bracelets attached you should make sure to obtain a map of the museum. First up on your list should be the aforementioned main gallery, steps away from the reception desk. It currently features Streamlined: From Hull to Home, which “charts the progress of streamlining” from naval engineering and manufacturing to home appliances and other aspects of our lives. Boats and outboard motors are the highlight of the naval part of the exhibition, while an impressively curated collection of toasters, the first one dating from 1905 with examples all the way up to the 1990s, is sure to put a smile on your face. This exhibition is on view until August 25.
Leaving the main gallery and venturing into the open setting of the seaport marks the time where a final check of sun-safety equipment is paramount to mission success. Water, along with hats and sunscreen, already freshly applied, as well as additional quantities for reapplication in a few hours, as necessary, are a must. You will likely spend the rest of the day under the blistering sun so exercise caution.
Another thing to mind is to keep your small children in your sights at all times, since the edge of the water is never too far and, this being a real port, there are no barriers to hinder a child's path to the river.
A side note here: Mystic Seaport, despite its name, is actually situated on the Mystic River, but is less than a mile from Mystic Harbor and the eastern edge of the Long Island Sound.
As we started exploring the seaport, we were quickly drawn to the dramatic timbre of actors, performing a play on a small outdoor stage. Visitors, about 50 or so, filled the seats, consumed by the action in front of them. The three actors were in the middle of a short version of possibly the greatest American novel ever written – Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. It turns out that during the day, the stage is the location of a few different performances. Chairs and stage alike are strategically located on the few shady locations at the seaport, so even in hot summer day you can still enjoy the work of the talented performers.
A stone-throw away is a restaurant that could be a good spot to get lunch later. We didn't have a chance to sample the food and service there, but all tables were full and people seemed content and enjoying the day.
As you dive deeper into the workings of this living history center, you have a chance to climb aboard and explore three real tall ships, one of which is the aforementioned 19th Century whaling vessel Charles B. Morgan. In a perfect working condition, it was most recently sailed in 2014. Could it sail again? The answer from the on-duty docent on the ship was that it surely could, but would be an expensive proposition since the ballast at the bottom has to be removed for the river portion of the voyage and then replaced again, once at a safe depth in the harbor. You can go under deck and marvel at the baby crib-like enclosures that were used by fully-grown men to sleep during their working voyage, which could run for 3 or even 4 years. Think about this when complaining from a 9 to 5 predicament. From its launch in 1841 until its last whaling trip ended in 1921, the Morgan went on 37 such voyages chasing whales all around the world and proving its resiliency in multiple Cape Horn roundings, storms, Arctic ice and other perils typical for such a global maritime operation.
There are two other ships that you can climb aboard – Joseph Conrad, a former Danish training ship, and the L.A. Dunton, a fishing schooner from the early 20th Century.
On land, the hustle and bustle of a seaport from the olden days can be experienced first-hand with many living historians manning the different buildings and sharing their knowledge about life during those long-gone times. Of a particular interest might be the cooperage (the shop of the barrel maker), the Mystic Press printing office and the Nautical Instruments shops (no GPS at the time) with many other shops and locations also available as well so check your map or just keep on walking and looking.
Speaking of nautical instruments, that shop had an available Navigation Quest game which kids are sure to love. In exchange for your drivers license, held temporarily until you return the kit, the shop minder will give you an over-the-shoulder messenger bag with a compass, small spyglass telescope, a pre-programmed GPS unit, a big wrought iron key and instructions on how to play the game. Following the directions, and with the help of the available tools, your kids should be able to find four small boxes each containing a brochure about the museum.
On a side note, the small telescope seemed to be the point of friction as both my kids seemed to want to hold and use it all the time (hint: you really probably wouldn't need it to find the boxes).
Either way, the game provides about an hour's worth of fun and exercise for your little ones, as well as an exciting reason to further explore the museum's grounds.
There are also two boats that provide regular river cruises. The bigger one is an old steam ship that still runs on coal and water steam and the other one is a small diesel boat with an open deck. For these cruises you have to pay a separate fee. We did the small open-deck boat for $4 per person. The trip around the seaport lasted about half and hour, which was essentially a guided tour of the water assets of the museum.
After the river cruise we walked to check out the working boat yard, being extra careful to stay out of the way of moving machinery. Also close by is the construction site of The Mayflower 2, which is a replica of the real thing that brought the first Pilgrims to these shores. Three observation decks, one on the starboard side, one at the stern and one at the bow, the last one being the best option, offered a glimpse of the ship during her construction.
With kids, don't forget to visit the Children's Museum at the Mystic Seaport, which offers a great play area for your little ones – a welcome respite from the long walk of exploration outside.
This article covers only a small portion of what is available at Mystic Seaport. Daily demonstrations, performances and so much more will always keep you entertained and inquisitive.
Mystic Seaport is a place where you can get lost in time, and space, and in a good way. Everywhere you look will get you inspired to take a photo and submit it to a post card contest. Meanwhile the sheer number of places to visit and stories to hear there can overwhelm even a history junkie like me.
And since we are around the Independence Day holiday, Mystic Seaport might just be the place to visit with your family—a nearby haven, deeply anchored in history and maritime tradition. Anchors aweigh!