The Captain has agreed to take one day off per week, preferably a rainy day when he can’t work on the decks anyway. Sometime, when negotiations stall, I take what I can get and this arrangement is at least a start. I can negotiate further another time, but since it was raining this day, I was happy to go with the flow. A day off from boat work for the Captain and crew is a good day, no matter what the weather. And what better way to spend it than the Mariner’s Museum, located in Newport News, one of the key shipbuilding and refitting ports of the USA.
The rain came down in torrents as Blue plowed his way through massive puddles along the highway, then through the Monitor-Merrimac Tunnel and finally negotiated a circuitous route to the Mariner’s Museum and Park, seemingly hidden away in an otherwise urban area. What a gorgeous park with stately, serious lions guarding the entrance, reminiscent of St. Augustine’s lions. A brief respite from showers allowed a picture or two.
The museum grounds are quite large, secluded in trees on 550 acres of land including Lake Maury, named for the 19th century oceanographer and native Virginian, Matthew Maury. The 5-mile Noland Trail circles the lake and begged a walking tour, but the heavens exploded once again and we decided the dry museum was a better afternoon venue. An incentive and major bonus of the museum’s summer program is that admission is only $1. Really? Almost free AND it’s a mariner’s museum to boot. Life’s good.
The lobby is expansive and inviting, a massive golden eagle figurehead dominating the scene. Carved in 1880-1881 by John Haley Bellamy for the steam frigate, USS Lancaster, it is considered one of the largest and most impressive figureheads ever created. Weighing in at 3,200 pounds (talk about lowering the waterline), the wingspan of this enormous gilded eagle is 19 feet!
We headed first to the Age of Exploration gallery where our hero, Captain James Cook, was lauded among other famous explorers throughout the ages. If you’ve never read or seen Longitude by Dava Sorbel, it documents the story of John Harrison developing an accurate timepiece for use at sea, the key element to determining longitude.
One gallery was dedicated to shouting the praises of Admiral Lord Nelson, one of Britain’s greatest naval heroes. From memorabilia, to carved figurines, to figureheads to battle strategies and outcomes, Nelson is still considered one of the most brilliant naval strategists of all times.
The museum’s gem is a full-size model of the ironclad Merrimac, as in Merrimac vs. the Monitor in the 1862 U.S. Civil War naval battle which took place not far away from here in Hampton Roads. It’s hard to imagine these clunky-looking ships engaged in battle.
We enjoyed some nautical humor along the way.
The gallery on whaling was lackluster and quite a disappointment. One special exhibit entitled Polynesian Voyagers was interesting, but offered nothing particularly revealing. The Speed & Innovation in the America’s Cup gallery displayed an actual hanging America’s Cup vessel suspended from the ceiling. Some of these boats reach speeds of nearly 50 knots … just a skosh faster than Nine of Cups on her best day.
Actually, the high point for us was a small, dark gallery which contained the intricately carved ship models constructed by August Crabtree and his wife, Winnifred. The collection is nothing less than spectacular … amazing … stunning … in its meticulous attention to even the most minute detail of each ship. This gallery alone made the trip worthwhile.
Each time I visit a museum like this, I’m always so entranced by the way artifacts, information and materials are presented and it gets me to thinking about the person/people who spend their time doing all this. On a scale of all the maritime museums we’ve visited, we’d probably rate the the Mariner’s Museum as a 3 on a scale of 1-5. It is not world-class, but it’s quite enjoyable to wander around and definitely a great rainy day excursion.