East Coast US, New England, Travels

Maritime Explorations – USS Nautilus Submarine, Charles W. Morgan Whaling Ship, and Mystic Seaport

Pat really likes boats. Not as much as he likes blimps…which is a story for another time. But his inner child gets really excited about boats.

(Truthfully, mine does too.)

So I planned a nautical-themed day for us on the Connecticut coast. And I have to admit, I very much enjoyed it as well.

Stop #1 was the Submarine Force Museum in Groton, Connecticut. Something I never realized is that much of the history of submarines – particularly nuclear-powered ones – centers around Connecticut.

The USS Nautilus was the first nuclear-powered submarine ever built, and she was built here in Connecticut. Using nuclear power provides many advantages over conventionally-powered submarines, of which I’ll spare you the details. Mostly because I don’t really understand them.

But because she is nuclear powered, the USS Nautilus is capable of staying underwater for very long periods of time and broke many submarine-related records when first launched (longest distance traveled, highest speed, etc.). She was also the first submarine to cross over (under?) the North Pole.

Today, the USS Nautilus has been renovated and restored and is parked on the Thames River in Groton (stupid though it may sound, here in Connecticut “Thames” is pronounced “thaymes” not “tems”).

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USS Nautilus in the Thames River – Groton, CT

A portion of the submarine is open for (free!) self-guided tours, and a very thorough museum (also free!) taught me more than I thought there was to know about submarines. It was fascinating!

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Replica of the control room at the USS Nautilus Museum – Groton, CT
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Pat had a little bit too much fun pretending to man the submarine – USS Nautilus Museum, Groton, CT
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On board the USS Nautilus – Groton, CT
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Submarine dining room – USS Nautilus Museum, Groton, CT

Stop #2 was at a very different kind of ship. The Charles W. Morgan is a whaling ship built in 1841. It’s a wooden ship and the US’s second-oldest ship still afloat (only the USS Constitution is older). For 80 years, the Charles W. Morgan went on voyages and remarkably remained intact despite various encounters with stormy seas and icebergs. Her primary job was harvesting of whale blubber and whale oil for use in oil lamps.

To celebrate her resilience, she was retired, designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1966, and, more recently, underwent some hefty restorations in order to make her seaworthy once again. She now resides at Mystic Seaport but occasionally takes voyages along the New England coast. When we saw her, she was docked in New London, Connecticut, on a three-month journey from Mystic up to Maine and back.

While in New London, she was open for free self-guided tours, so we spent about half an hour exploring the deck and below deck areas of the ship.

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Charles W. Morgan Whaling Ship – New London, CT

It’s amazing to me that wooden boats such as these were ever able to successfully return from a voyage, much less 80 years’ worth of voyages. It’s really very remarkable.

On a somewhat related topic, why are boats always female?

Anyway, our final stop of the day was The Museum of America and the Sea, otherwise known as Mystic Seaport. This is the largest maritime museum in the United States. Inspired by Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, which is a living history museum portraying life of early American colonists, Mystic Seaport depicts 1800s maritime life.

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Mystic River at Mystic Seaport – Mystic, CT

There are over 60 original buildings that have been restored and are now brought to life by those practicing the trades of the times. Mystic Seaport is also home to many historic boats and ships as well as a shipyard.

We saw a blacksmith, a cooper (barrel maker), a haberdasher (one who sells garments and items for sewing), and some people working in the shipyard, to name a few.

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Historic boat, dock, and buildings at Mystic Seaport – Mystic, CT
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A row of historic shops line the waterfront at Mystic Seaport – Mystic, CT
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Shipyard at Mystic Seaport – Mystic, CT

It always amazes me, the amount of skill required for life back in the day. Barrel making is a very careful process, and one which I’d never given much thought to. But it’s important to use the optimal type of wood for the purpose of the barrel (for example, one that won’t impart an odor upon food), and to seal everything together extremely tightly to avoid leaks.

Blacksmithing also really impresses me, and I think it’s cool that there are still a few people who are well versed in the trade. It was amazing to watch the blacksmith make such detailed and finely-tuned metal items all with the use of hot coals and large tools.

I’m neither coordinated nor patient enough for such a thing.

Anyway, this wrapped up our maritime-themed day. But before heading home, we drove up the road to Mystic Pizza. It’s not the actual restaurant that its namesake movie was filmed at. But it was the inspiration for the film and, after the film’s release, was renovated to resemble the restaurant used on the movie set.

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After a delicious and somewhat unusual barbecue chicken pizza, we headed home full of pizza and nautical knowledge, and with a new appreciation for the challenges of maritime life in the 1800s.

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