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A Way with Wood: Mystic Boat Builders


The Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut is very much a museum of history, of the coastal lives and voyages of a seafaring people and port, but it's also a showcase of many of the crafts and trades that made the ships and served the sailors.

P1090314That's reflected especially in the Seaport's boat building and maintenance programs, which include a full-scale shipyard that built a replica of the slave ship Amistad and cares for a host of other historic vessels, including the replica of the Mayflower at Plymouth, Massachusetts.


But those are the big projects. Mystic also builds and cares for its small craft, and uses the work as a way to show off the crafts of woodworking as well as the process of boat building. Part of that takes place in a very modern building right at the Seaport's entrance: An amazing wooden building, made very much in the way a ship would be.


The exhibit space is in the center of the building, with a gradually-rising walkway that takes you all the way around the work in progress. The exhibit goes by the title A Way with Wood, and it's apt.


Several staff members were at work on two projects during my visit; both master craftspeople and apprentices work on the boats. The two on the floor at the time were Fenwick, a small rowing boat that's part of a fleet that visitors can take out on the water and Afterglow, a larger boat (takes four to row it) that's used as a tender for the schooner Brilliant.


Afterglow has an interesting history. It was built in 1976 at Mystic to replace an identical boat that was lost at sea. That boat, like Afterglow, was a copy of a 19th-century lifeboat, which is on view at Mystic's historic lifeboat station.


Brilliant, the ship it's paired with, is a sailing ship used to train new sailors in Mystic's programs. When Brilliant anchors at a port, Afterglow becomes their shuttle between the ship and town. Unlike smaller tenders, or tenders on bigger ships, she doesn't fit well on deck and is towed behind.


A variety of hand and machine tools are used in the work; note below the hand auger lying on the keel while a power drill is in use. The work may include replacing corroded hardware, caulking, replacing wooden parts where needed, and, apparently, lots of glue.


I can't fix anything without lots of blue painter's tape, either.


Lots of bits and bobs kept ready at hand. This table was our One-Clue Mystery for the week; correct answers came from XXXXX,  XXXXX


Tucked into the exhibit is a display case full of a shipwright's tools, like the ones being used in the work. This particular set has its own history, starting with the carrying box; boat builders usually carried their own, including tools for measuring, for shaping, for fastening and for finishing.


This set is copied from the kit owned by Walter Ansel, the senior shipwright in Mystic's Preservation Shipyard. It is nearly identical to the set used by his father, who was also a Mystic shipwright. Walter Ansel's daughter has also worked on Mystic's ships, including the restoration of the Charles W. Morgan.

Previous TravelGumbo blogs from Mystic Seaport include Mystic Seaport: A Walk Along the Shore (11/18/20) and The Last Whaleship: Mystic Seaport (12/9/20). A future blog will include a visit to Mystic's Preservation Shipyard.


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