PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – It’s raining. And it’s not even November. So, I recall the words of Herman Melville, “Whenever it’s a damp drizzly November in my soul ……I quietly take to the ship.” Winter in snow country is not exactly a time to raise the sails. The next best thing while staying warm is to explore a history of man and the sea at Maritime Museums on day trip, weekend or destination getaways. Here are some of my favorites.
Grim day, but you need a getaway close to home? Head to the water’s edge on the Delaware River and the Independence Seaport museum. Moored alongside are 2 major pieces of history that launch a fascinating voyage into America’s Nautical Past. The Cruiser Olympia was the U.S. flagship at the battle of Manila Bay. Walk the decks and get a feel of how 19th century sailors lived and worked. Then, descend into the bowels of the World War 2 submarine, Becuna. Tight quarters, torpedo tubes and the smell of diesel defined undersea life. If you’re claustrophobic, just move on to the museum for a dynamic view of shipbuilding and maritime life on the Delaware. Want more? The sailing vessel that morphed into a restaurant, the Moshulu and the nautically themed Chart House are right next door.
Make it a weekend at St. Michaels on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The 18th century roots of this harbor town have been well preserved. The centerpiece is the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. It’s landmark exhibit is a unique “Screwpile Lighthouse”. Some pre-date the Civil War and were most recently manned by the Coast Guard. Before remote electronics took over, full crews lived and worked aboard these cottages on stilts in the middle of the Bay. The museum’s “Hooper Straight” lighthouse, transplanted to St. Michaels is open for visitors to experience how the “Keepers of the Light” lived and maintained a beam that kept vessels large and small out of harm’s way. In and around the museum you’ll explore the bay boat building trades along with the vessels and stories of the rough hands that harvest the Chesapeake for it’s prized blue crabs and oysters. Then stop at the neighboring Crab Claw eatery, reopening next month for a taste of the Chesapeake.
The Aircraft Carrier Intrepid holds a special place in American naval lore and is a symbol of the fighting spirit for veterans who served from World War II to Viet Nam. She’s now the platform for an amazing museum on the banks of the Hudson River in New York. The Intrepid holds a vast collection of military aircraft on the flight and hangar decks. The ship and pier complex displays a space shuttle and one of the Supersonic Concordes that rocketed passengers across the Atlantic. In fair weather or foul, it’s a must see stop on a Big Apple getaway. As for lunch, I always enjoy the Chelsea Market.
Back to Herman Melville. If you’ve read his “Moby Dick” or recently seen the film, “Heart of the Sea”, a true yarn on which Moby Dick was based, the Mystic Seaport near New London, Connecticut is a place to walk the decks of a 19th century whaler. The Charles W. Morgan is the last of these ships that plied the Atlantic and Pacific whaling grounds. They could be away from home for 3 years and had to be self-sustaining. A tour of the Morgan takes you back in time as hand touches helm, harpoon and dory. Guides offer the music and tales of the men and ships that plied the trade and those who waited at home. The museum is a glimpse into the New England ship building and provisioning trades while restoration of historic vessels goes on around you. Lunch? Just down the road near the base of the drawbridge, slurp oysters and enjoy chowder on the water at the S&P Oyster Company.
OTHER NEW LONDON AREA MUSEUMS
As long as you’re in the area on a New England Getaway, stop at the Submarine Force Museum. http://www.ussnautilus.org/ Take a tour through America’s first nuclear sub, “U.S.S. Nautilus”. Stroll the museum passage that leads to the Nautilus and explore the development and history of “The Silent Service”.
As a Coast Guard veteran, a visit to the service museum on the grounds of the New London Coast Guard Academy is a sentimental journey. Through artifacts and paintings the displays trace the history of the nation’s oldest seagoing service, it’s lifesaving mission and it’s role in every conflict since 1790 when formed by Alexander Hamilton as the Revenue Cutter Service.
The sight of a blood spattered British naval officer’s uniform was a highlight of my visit to the granddaddy of all maritime museums. But it wasn’t the uniform of any officer. This one was worn by the most famous of all – Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson on the day he died of a French sniper’s musket ball during the Battle of Trafalgar. It is on display at Britain’s National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. There you can see the story of navigation at the site where longitude – a vital navigational street sign begins. Board the faithfully restored Cutty Sark. In the world of sailing, she was the fastest Clipper ship, carrying tea from Asia to England. Getting there can be part of the adventure. It’s about a 45 minute cruise on the Thames River from the heart of London. As you’ve figured out by now, this getaway will be more than a casual weekend, but a destination vacation to a land beyond the sea.
Now, find a riveting nautical read to liven up the remaining winter nights. You can even start with Nathaniel Philbrick’s “In the Heart of the Sea” – the story that inspired Melville.