OPINION: Mystic Seaport plans debut of hundreds of long-hidden boats

Apr. 20—Mystic Seaport Museum could hardly be accused of hiding its remarkable assets.

After all, there are ― hard to imagine ― four floating national historic landmarks on display along the museum's waterfront, including, of course, the last surviving wooden whale ship, the Charles W. Morgan.

It would take days to visit all the seaport has on display to tell its signature mission story of America and the Sea, from the magnificent ships themselves to re-created ship chandleries, blacksmith and barrel coopers' shops, figurehead displays, a working restoration shipyard and thousands of square feet of exhibit space featuring everything from models and explanatory presentations to traditional and modern art.

It's hard to believe, but what visitors have long been able to see is almost only the tip of the iceberg, given that much of its collection of marine watercraft has long been in deep storage, mostly out of public sight, except for some used in occasional exhibits.

All that is about to change though, with plans under way to open a new $15 million exhibit hall, which, with its 35,000 square feet of space, will be almost three times the size of the grand, new Thompson Exhibition Building, which the museum opened in 2016.

The seaport's remarkable small boat collection, now numbering about 560 craft, is considered the largest and most diverse of its kind in the world.

It's grown over the years of the seaport's existence, as the museum has been offered boats by owners who realize they are unique artifacts and need to be preserved.

The boats are stored inside much of the four-acre former Rossi Velvet Mill building, across from the seaport's North Entrance. About a quarter of the mill building has already been remodeled, into a climate-controlled Collections Research Center.

Another quarter of the building is now proposed as the new Wells Boat Hall, to be named after donors Stanley and Nancy Wells, and will house much of the collection that is now largely out of sight.

The museum has already raised about half of its estimated $15 million cost from private donors. It has selected a contractor and design firm for the interior and exhibit displays.

Preliminary work has begun, and a tentative schedule calls for a spring 2025 opening.

Another $4.8 million has been committed in a planned future bequest, which will be used to establish an endowment.

The eclectic range of boats include entries from the pages of political and literary history, a sailboat owned and sailed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the beautiful Vireo, and a 16-foot Boston Whaler owned by John Steinbeck and piloted by the writer around Sag Harbor, Long Island.

There's a wooden boat that carried refugees from Cuba in the 1994 boat lift and the lifeboat that protected sailor and writer Steve Callahan in 1982, the subject of his bestseller "Adrift: Seventy Six Days Lost At Sea."

The boats are all different sizes and shapes, some sail, some power, some rowboats. They are in varied conditions, showing the "patina of use" as the museum curators like to describe it, the places where you can see how they aged, like the marks left in the paint, for instance, by fishing nets hauled aboard.

There's lots of peeling paint and yellowed varnish.

Many of the boats are stacked on wooden racks made by seaport volunteers over the years and, combined together, across the broad sweep of the interior of the mill, make for quite a sight. All those floating stories preserved as if in mothballs.

Museum President Peter Armstrong said they plan to retain some of the feeling of a moment frozen in time that exists in the storage areas now. The boats won't be restored.

"We want to preserve that feel and smell, the dusty environment," he said. "You can look and see what kinds of things the boat got in to."

Armstrong said a permanent solution to opening the boat collection to public exhibits has long interested the museum, which has pursued other major projects instead over the years.

It's been moved to a front burner.

"It's moment is now," Armstrong said.

Not only will the project better secure the seaport's remarkable collection for future generations, but the work will enhance the mill building itself, the centerpiece of a district on the National Register of Historic Places.

It's a project that will benefit the community as well as create another important cog in the state's tourism inventory.

I thank the donors for their generosity, and I would urge lawmakers to work to have the state contribute too, as the seaport launches this exciting new Connecticut-based look at America and the Sea.

This is the opinion of David Collins.