462 Boats and Counting

In the middle is the practice wherry built by George Pocock.

2 July 2018

Göran R Buckhorn has found a hidden gem for rowers.

Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut, is the largest maritime museum in the United States. It was founded as The Marine Historical Association on Christmas Day in 1929. Today, the Museum covers 19 acres of land on the eastern side of the Mystic River and has more than 500 watercraft in its collection.

One of the most popular annual events at the Museum is the WoodenBoat Show, which is produced and presented by WoodenBoat and hosted by the Museum in June. This year, the show was held between 22 and 24 June, and HTBS covered the event – after all there are a lot of wooden rowing boats at the show.

During the three days of the WoodenBoat Show, the Museum offers the thousands of visitors a rare opportunity to see a hidden gem at the Museum, the Watercraft Hall, which is 38,294 square feet divided in two larger ‘halls’ or ‘rooms’. According to Phil Tankard, who is the head of the group of men and women who volunteer to take care of the watercraft in the Hall, the official vessel count is now 462. The rest of the vessels are located on the Museum campus. Many of the vessels are docked in the river, of course.

Some of the recreational and training boats and racing shells in the Watercraft Hall belong to the National Rowing Foundation (NRF).

During the WoodenBoat Show, HTBS took the opportunity to visit to take 4 minutes, 23 seconds of ‘moving pictures’ of the different vessels in the Watercraft Hall. Before I call out ‘action’, allow me to point out some ‘goodies’ in the collections of the Museum and the NRF.

There is a very elegant ‘practice wherry’ built by George Pocock, probably in the early 1960s (at 1:01 in the film). The boat is shorter by 4 to 5 feet and a foot wider than most of the competitive single sculls in the 1960s. This is one of a fleet of Pocock boats in the Hall, including the beautiful single scull By George.

In 1824, the gig American Star raced Dart, a boat from a Royal Navy vessel in New York Harbor. The American crew won and the boat was soon thereafter given as a gift to Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, also known as General Lafayette, a French officer who was a good friend of George Washington. When General Lafayette went back to France, he brought the gig with him to his estate outside Paris. In the 1970s, famous boat builder John Gardner, who was working at Mystic Seaport Museum, visited Lafayette’s chateau, found the old American Star, which by then was the oldest American small boat known to exist. Gardner studied and recorded her lines. Back at the Museum, Gardner draw up her lines and started building a near-replica of her. The 27-foot boat, General Lafayette, was ready to be tried out on the Mystic River in 1975 (2:02).

When you see the 23-foot Gytha, you think of Three Men in a Boat. She is a Thames skiff, built c. 1880 and is a beautiful example of craftsmanship by famous boat builder E. Messum & Sons of Richmond, England (3:26). According to the book Mystic Seaport Watercraft:*

Picnic supplies or camping gear go in a box under the passenger seat, and there is a canvas canopy for camping. […] Gytha has elaborate painted and gold-leafed decorations under the rowlocks and in the stern sheets. Her oars are monogrammed and her tiller ropes embellished with decorative rope work.

James Lawrence bought the boat from E. Messum & Sons around 1880 and brought her to Massachusetts, where he rowed her on Nashua River, near Groton. Gytha was donated to Mystic Seaport Museum by Lawrence’s grandson.

There are also some old rowing machines in the Watercraft Hall – they have no resemblance what so ever to an erg (3:40). Hard to see in the little film is a famous rowing boat, a straight six-oared shell built c. 1870 (in the bottom of the picture at 3:54, hull up; it can also be seen in the still picture for the video below). Mystic Seaport Watercraft reads that the boat is

widely held to be the shell used by Massachusetts Agricultural College (now the University of Massachusetts) to defeat Harvard and Brown in March 1871 in a race held at Ingleside on the Connecticut River, near Springfield, Massachusetts. […] This boat may, however, be an 1872 replacement for the original, said to have been burned in a fire.

The six-oared shell used by Massachusetts Agricultural College to defeat Harvard and Brown in March 1871. Photo courtesy of University of Massachusetts.

More about the race here.

In the Hall is also a rare 1982 Van Dusen blue single scull with fixed-seat, sliding riggers (4:03). In 1981, German boat builder Empacher had successfully built a boat with a fixed seat and movable riggers. It was Empacher singles that were victorious in the World Championships in 1981, 1982 and 1983. American rower John Biglow took a bronze at the World Championships in 1982 in this Van Dusen boat, and Tiff Wood rowed it in 1983. After the championships that year, FISA banned this kind of boat with moving riggers, saying that it was more expensive than single sculls with sliding seats and so to make the races fair for all competitors, the boats had to be the same. The Van Dusen single was donated to NRF in 1997 by rowing historian Peter Mallory, known from these pages.

At the very end of the video (4:15) is a wing-rigger single scull invented by Bob Negaard. This particular boat also has some floating devises on the riggers helping novice scullers to stay afloat and not capsize.

“VMary” and “By George” at the 4th Rowing History Forum in March 2008 at Mystic Seaport Museum.

In the collection of racing shells is also VMary, one of Jack ‘Kell’ Kelly, Jnr.’s, single sculls. Another single scull, which belonged to a prominent American rower, is the ‘box boat’, once owned by Walter M. Hoover, who in the 1920s won four N.A.A.O. sculling titles. He also won the 1922 Diamond Challenge Sculls at Henley, beating famous English sculler Jack Beresford. Hoover’s box boat was donated to the NRF by Ed Monahan.

Among the boats are also a couple built by Joe Garofalo of Worcester Oar and Paddle Company.

Now over to the film. Action!

*Most of the information about the watercraft mentioned in this article is based on Mystic Seaport Watercraft, third edition, 2001, by Maynard Bray, Benjamin A. G. Fuller and Peter T. Vermilya.

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