Story Boats: The Tales they tell

For a deeper dive into the exhibit, check out our upcoming related
events including our exciting lecture series Boat Stories.

One of the Museum’s greatest assets is its small watercraft collection, which is arguably the largest of its type and the best in the country. Mystic Seaport Museum has more than 450 small watercraft as well as a fleet of larger historic vessels tethered to our docks along the Mystic River, four of which are designated National Historic Landmarks. As a whole, these vessels represent an extraordinary array of design, purpose, and materials beginning in the early 19th century to the present, from dugout canoes to duck boats to Boston Whalers and everything in between and beyond. What ties these boats together thematically, and is the inspiration for the exhibition Story Boats: The Tales They Tell, is the remarkable richness of human interest stories behind them, which include themes of hope, exploration, survival, joy, adventure, sport, immigration, and many others.

Our Clark Senior Curator for Watercraft, Quentin Snediker, consulted with a diverse pool of experts and regular people to distill a list of boats from the collection that have these outstanding stories to tell. The exhibition installation in the Collins Gallery will fully utilize the grand volume of the space to advantage, where some of the lighter vessels will “fly” suspended from the ceiling, while others will be mounted on the gallery floor. Each vessel will be exhibited with an iconic object that alludes to its story. For example, the team is working to borrow pieces from a collection of Franklin D. Roosevelt artifacts to show alongside his 1914 knockabout sloop Vireo. Shortly before a family trip aboard this elegant small yacht in 1921, it is believed that Roosevelt contracted polio. He was aboard this small vessel on the last day he walked without assistance.

Mystic Seaport Museum recently received a collection of material from Steven Callahan, author of Adrift: Seventy-Six Days Lost at Sea, the true story of his survival of being lost at sea in a rubber raft after his solo sailing trip across the Atlantic met with disaster. His sketches and some of the survival tools he created from his scant supplies will be on display with a similar model of the raft from which he found rescue off Guadeloupe. Callahan’s recent oral histories recorded by Mystic Seaport Museum will also be available in the exhibition.

Another fascinating story involves the Analuisa (pictured above), a 20-foot fishing vessel built by Luciano Cuadras Fernández, which was launched from Mariel, Cuba, in 1994 with 19 people aboard bound to immigrate to Florida. Partway across, they were picked up by a passing cruise ship, whose crew was no doubt worried about the heavily overcrowded vessel. A very fortunate crew of four on a floundering vessel also out of Cuba, happened upon the abandoned Analuisa and brought her safely to Key West. The sturdy Analuisa was a success story for two immigrant groups in one voyage. These are just a few of the hundreds of amazing stories that are tied to our Gallery collection.

The Cuban fishing boat ANALUISA.

To complement the Collins Gallery exhibition, other watercraft will be mounted on the deck surrounding the Thompson Exhibition Building and the surrounding grounds, including Tango, a bright orange foot-pedal powered craft designed by the legendary Bruce Kirby. In 1992, Dwight Collins pedaled from Newfoundland to England in 41 days, the fastest human-powered crossing in known history. In addition to these displays, there will be special visitor maps to floating Story Boats vessels that carry their own powerful tales, including the Gerda III, which is on long-term loan from the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. In 1943, a courageous 22-year-old woman named Henny Sinding organized a resistance team to carry more than 300 Jews from Nazi-occupied Denmark to safety in Sweden aboard the Gerda III.

At any time, visitors can roam the boat-filled docks and even step aboard some of our larger ships that live in or next to the Mystic River. We hope that Story Boats whets the appetite of the public to learn more about our extraordinary collection and helps them find their own connection to the sea.