Nautical Terminology: On Display

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Working and studying in the historic Mystic Seaport is one of the aspects that the Williams-Mystic program advertises. They mention the many historic buildings, moved here from all over the northeast. They mention the hundreds of historic vessels. They never mention the fact that the students become museum exhibits themselves.

In the blacksmith shop, three of us come in twice a week to learn the craft from Master Smith Bill Scheer. The shop has been imported from New Bedford, Massachusetts, right down to its dirt floor. Inside, they make historical ship- and whaling craft–harpoons, killing lances, and all kinds of bolts, hoops, and shackles for ships existing outside their time.

I know all this because the above facts are the backbone of the shipsmith interpreter’s talk. Visitors come into the shop, gawk at the bellows in the ceiling, and hear (or ignore) those facts rattled off by Bill or one of the other smiths. The next part of the talk inevitably goes something like this:
“Right now, you can see a college class working on making wall hooks, a common project for apprentice blacksmiths. These students come from colleges all around the country to study here for the semester, where they take academic and skills classes in the seaport.”

We apprentices, meanwhile, keep on working–heating our metal to 2500 (but not 3000) degrees Farenheit, pounding curls, flame finnials, and twists into our wall hooks. As the clock rolls around towards four, Bill will stop speaking to the visitors and offer hot chocolate, which, on these gray New England days, we accept, drinking while the metal heats in the forge.

It is not only in the shipsmith shop that we are on display–when our literature class convened on board the whaling vessel C.W. Morgan, we were the center of attention, despite the three musicians performing chanteys amidships. To be fair, we brought it upon ourselves–spreading out to do some unstructured writing (“an historic exercise, putting, pen to paper” says professor Rich King), we moved past the museum’s barrier ropes, and sat on and under the foredeck, just aft of the bowsprit.
Of course, once we were beyond the ropes, the visitors looked.

“Excuse me,” one of them said to the museum staff, “There are some kids beyond the ropes up there. They’re writing something.”

“Oh yes, they’re college students from all around the country, come to study here…”

So it continues, whenever we use our museum badges and go across the street into The Seaport. The fences masquerading as small-town charm are really the museum’s barrier to entry. We, however, with our student badges, are allowed in these staff-only entrances, closer to our houses than the main entrance.

But even out of the museum, in our own backyards, we are on exhibit–Johnston House (where I live) abuts the museum’s main parking lot, so whether I’m gardening, hanging laundry, or reading in my hammock, there are tourists arriving and departing within my view.

This made itself particularly evident on Friday. Having just returned from a morning-long trip on board a fishing trawler, we decided to clean our catch on Johnston House’s picnic table.

“What are you guys cutting up?” asked a man in parking lot.

There were about seven of us there–five with knives, one with a camera, and one with a bag of fillets. A bucket of fish heads and viscera was next to the table. Not a few hours earlier, these fish had been flopping on the after-deck of the Cap’n Bert. Lobsters, flukes, bluefish, and a 25 pound striped bass all laid beneath our knives, and in the two overflowing coolers.

“Fish,” we said.

“Wow, you made a good catch.” He had only seen the table. Then he looked at the coolers. “You made a really good catch.”

“Well,” we said, “we were trawling in Rhode Island.”


We knew that what was coming next was “Well, we’re college students from around the country, coming here to study for a semester,” but there being no museum staff, we kept silent.

“Well, I gotta go,” said the visitor.

We chopped our fish without further interruption, warming to the concept what we had just spent our morning catching and our afternoon preparing would soon be our evening meal, to be consumed inside our houses, after all the visitors have left the museum.

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