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Keeping History Afloat: Mystic Seaport Connects the Past to the Present | John Gavin IV

On the piers of the Mystic Seaport, hammers pound and electric saws shriek on a late March morning. Springtime is near and the warmer weather has arrived, kicking the shipbuilding season into full swing. After a winter of working on sawdust-coated floors or beneath large tarps, the seaport shipwrights are back outside practicing their ancient craft. With the sun hanging high in clear blue skies, it’s time to weigh anchor and set sail.

Despite snarled global supply chains due to the pandemic, skilled craftspeople continue to work unabated at the shipyard. This is because they build upon the foundation of an extensive history of shipbuilding. The shipwrights of Mystic know how to get creative and are applying new approaches to old technology, or sometimes, a historic approach to new technology.

“If we work on a ship, we’re doing it right, historically,” says Chris Gasiorek, senior vice president of operations and watercraft at the shipyard, or, as he refers to himself, VP of Floating Things. Gasiorek stands tall at the dock, even surrounded by ships twenty times his height, craning his head to marvel at the masts. He has always had an interest in ships, dating back to his childhood in Michigan when he’d point at the Great Lakes ore carriers on the Detroit River and say “I want to be on a boat.” His parents attempted to get Gasiorek pointing at a doctor or a lawyer, but ships captivated him. However, they did consider it a step up from the garbage trucks he pointed to before seeing a ship.

Chris Gasiorek standing in front of the Mayflower II (John Gavin IV for Blue Muse Magazine)

Gasiorek has worked on racing sailboats, motor yachts, container ships, tankers, tall ships, research ships, and nearly everything else that floats. He found himself working at the shipyard after teaching for the United States Merchant Marine Academy and working on the tall ship the Lady G. Howard. “It was my first time at the Mystic Seaport,” recalls Gasiorek with fondness as he brushes some lingering sawdust off his jacket. “I arrived in my boat, and I fell in love with the place.” 

Mystic, Connecticut, has been associated with shipbuilding since 1784, when Captain Edward Packer and his brother Eldredge Packer launched the first federally registered and documented American vessel after the Revolution: the sloop Polly. The shipyards along the Mystic River saw continued prosperity for several years, particularly in 1837 when George Greenman and his two brothers purchased twelve acres east of the river to establish the most successful shipbuilding company in the area, George Greenman & Company. William N. Peterson writes in his book, Mystic Built: Ships and Shipyards of the Mystic River, Connecticut, “The quality of [the Greenman brothers’] vessels brought them attention from other owners and agents who were expanding their offshore fleets.” Soon, larger ships were being commissioned in greater numbers than before, motivating the Greenman brothers to innovate and expand.

The decline of wooden shipbuilding started in the 1860s, not just in Mystic but around the world, as iron, and eventually steel, became the best suitable material for crafting larger vessels. Some shipyards in Mystic adapted to the changing industry with some success, while others continued working with wood despite slower business. In 1929, the Marine Historical Association was founded and the Mystic Seaport Museum was born. In the seventies, the Henry B. duPont Shipyard was established to preserve the museum’s ships, such as the whaling ship the Charles W. Morgan.

“If we work on a ship, we’re doing it right, historically.”

The Mystic Seaport isn’t only preserving history, it’s continuing the time-honored tradition of shipbuilding. The entire process of building a ship is visible, and that makes the place unique. “A tree comes in over there,” Gasiorek says, pointing to the side of the seaport adjacent to the street, “and a ship comes out over there,” pointing out to sea. It’s that simple here. Many modern shipyards are dependent on supply chains, handling steel that originates from China, which is then milled in Ohio before making its way to any shipyard. Here at Mystic, the transition from raw material to finished vessel happens in one location, just like Connecticut’s shipyards of the past.

The uniqueness of Mystic Seaport attracts many projects and people all along the East Coast. One of these projects is the restoration of the Mayflower II, a full-scale replica of the famous Mayflower that first brought the Pilgrims to America. The living history museum, Plimoth Patuxet, commissioned the restoration to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival. The Mayflower II is massive, with four masts and measuring 106 feet long. The shipwrights of Mystic took on the task of replacing 70 percent of the giant’s wood, not because that much of it was bad, but because oftentimes rotten wood is buried underneath good wood. The entire restoration took about four years, much longer than it took the ship to be built back in 1955. Restoring a ship may be more time-consuming than building a new one from scratch, but the shipwrights of Mystic wouldn’t have it any other way. This historically accurate work will ensure that the nearly seventy-year-old Mayflower II will last for generations to come. 

The Mayflower II on dry dock during its restoration (John Gavin IV for Blue Muse Magazine)

There are only twenty-six staff members at the shipyard, comprising twelve carpenters, one machinist, shipwrights, and administrators. The rest of the load is carried by volunteers, some of whom work forty hours a week. “We couldn’t do anything without them,” notes Gasiorek, standing in the shade of the near-complete Mayflower II. Just one week ago, the Mayflower II still rested atop a dry dock as the chill of winter still hung about a dreary sky. After being carefully transported to the lift dock thanks to the efforts of staff and volunteers, it’s now proudly moored in the river. As the gales from Long Island Sound whip at the sails beneath a blue sky, the ship is ready for its voyage home to Plimoth Patuxet.

Getting the exact wood a project requires grows more difficult each year, as many trees, such as southern live oak, are now considered protected species and cannot be readily acquired unless a hurricane knocks them down. Quentin Snediker, the seaport’s Clark Senior Curator for Watercraft, mentions on the seaport’s website that “Live Oak is sought after in wooden shipbuilding because it is very dense, hard, and resists rot.” But if the timber can’t be acquired, the shipwrights of Mystic will adapt, finding solutions to both historic and modern problems. “We try to keep everything exactly the way it would have been originally,” Gasiorek says, “but for outside ships, we will work with the owners to do something.” Sometimes that entails substituting wood, taking a different approach, or delaying a project until materials are available, but ultimately, they find a way.

Krit Singh aboard Pilot (John Gavin IV for Blue Muse Magazine)

Many of the shipwrights are graduates of the International Yacht Restoration School (IYRS) in Newport, Rhode Island. Krit Singh graduated while the Mayflower II restoration was going on. He was hired by the seaport, along with several of his classmates, to work on that project before leaving to explore private yacht work. But eventually, he felt Mystic calling him back. “I’m from Connecticut originally,” Singh says, “so I found myself back here before long.” Singh’s current project is Pilot, which operates as a floating oyster bar in Brooklyn. The work includes installing a soft patch, the portion of a ship’s deck that is removable. Historically, this was used to bring supplies below deck that otherwise wouldn’t fit. For Pilot, this will be used to facilitate moving its freezers. A historic solution for a modern problem.

Casey Cochran aboard Pilot (John Gavin IV for Blue Muse Magazine)

Not all the shipwrights are graduates of IYRS. Casey Cochran found his way to the seaport as a skilled hand when demand was high. On a late March morning, he is down on his hands and knees sanding down the beams on Pilot’s deck with painstaking attention. “I met some guys at a local pub,” Cochran remarks as he wipes the sweat of a hard morning’s work from his brow, “and they needed someone to swing a sledgehammer. And that’s how I got in.” From there Cochran took every opportunity to learn what he could about both shipbuilding and the history preserved at the Seaport. He’s since been signed on as an official shipwright, honing his craft and proving his worth with every project.

Sailing ships aren’t the only projects the seaport commissions. The historic steamboat Sabino was recently outfitted with an electric engine to keep the boat functional. Removing the steam engine did pose a problem, as its signature steam whistle would no longer work. The shipwrights found a modern solution to preserve history: partnering with a whistle manufacturer in Wisconsin, they were able to re-create the sound using a compressed air whistle. This way, the Sabino remains both true to its history and sustainable for future generations.

While Mystic’s builders preserve history, the future is being built just ten miles to the east at the Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, Connecticut. The seaport’s proximity to the base resulted in a distinctive project, the U.S.S. Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine as well as the first vessel to successfully travel to the North Pole. This government contract is part of a thirty-six-million-dollar preservation project to keep the Nautilus in top condition. A nuclear sub may seem far outside the range of the shipwrights’ skills, but they can repair something the steelyards in Groton cannot—the wood paneling of the deck. This is a task that demands the skills and resources held only by the shipwrights of Mystic.

Mystic’s future is likely the same as its past: continuing to create and restore wooden ships for years to come. “There’s no shortage of these projects,” Singh says. “We’re in a unique position where not a lot of people can do the work we do.” While shipyards similar to the Mystic Seaport exist in Maine and Delaware, they aren’t as equipped to handle big timber projects like the Mayflower II. Gasiorek asserts, “If you have the weight of a big vessel between Cape Hatteras and Maine, this is the place.”

Forklifts beep as they cruise across the shipyard grounds, getting that last bit of work done before the sun sets on another working day. The historic village adjacent to the shipyard gets quieter at night, while the electric light fixtures shut off and place everything in perfect stasis until the museum’s gates open again tomorrow. Modern technology may coexist with tradition, but history always prevails at the Mystic Seaport. The shipwrights ensure that after utilizing their modern tools, the finish of a ship is always done by hand. Gasiorek says it best as he gazes out at the gulls flocking over the sea: “There’s always a straight line that connects the past to the future, and we’re in the middle of that line. The best way to keep it going is to understand where it came from.”

Header Photo Credit: John Gavin IV

John Gavin IV is a Staff Writer for Blue Muse Magazine

Blue Muse Magazine is a general interest literary magazine published by the students of the English Department at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Connecticut. We publish poetry, fiction, and a gamut of creative nonfiction on anything and everything the blue muse inspires us to write.

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