One of the richest aspects of the boating life is its deep historical roots and the sweeping impact that sailing has had on all aspects of modern life. A late-winter visit to a maritime museum is a great chance to learn how boats shaped the course of American exploration, commerce and migration. But bundled with these lofty accomplishments is sailing’s natural beauty—from graceful hulls and billowing sails to intricately carved figureheads—and the maritime-themed paintings it inspired.
The following museums harbor some of the country’s finest collections and, weather (and seasonal hours) permitting, they’re accessible by land or water.
Herreshoff Marine Museum and America’s Cup Hall of Fame
If you love the America’s Cup and/or the exquisite yacht-design sensibilities of Captain Nathaniel G. Herreshoff (America’s greatest naval architect), then the Herreshoff Marine Museum and America’s Cup Hall of Fame, located in Bristol, Rhode Island, is a must-visit museum. Here, visitors will discover a grand and historically important collection of Herreshoff-designed power and sailing yachts, including Aria, a Buzzard’s Bay 25, Amaryllis, the world’s first catamaran, and Torch, a Fishers Island 31, not to mention a fine collection of H12½-meter boats, S-Class yachts and Buzzard’s Bay 15 sloops. Additionally, the museum houses the late “Captain Nat’s” collection of hand-carved, scaled half-hull models, which he used to design yachts (including America’s Cup contenders) before lofting them into real boats in his shop, which stood on the same land that’s now occupied by the museum.
Mystic Seaport Maritime Museum
The Mystic Seaport Maritime Museum presents its guests with a portal back to a time when whaling ships and sailing ships plied the oceans and when bustling seaports existed to support the seafaring trades. Visitors can tour the museum’s four National Historic Landmark Vessels, the Charles W. Morgan, Emma C. Berry, L.A. Dunton, and Sabino, as well as 19th-century replicas of a village and a working shipyard. The 30 buildings that comprise the village are actual period structures that were relocated here to create this historical composite, which offers visitors a real-world perspective of life in a seaport village. The Henry B. duPont Preservation Shipyard continues to service and restore the museum’s fleet, while also providing a look at the tools, techniques and materials that built America into the world’s greatest seafaring nation.
San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park
Given San Francisco’s prominent role in 19th-century trade, exploration and westward expansion, it’s little wonder that the National Park Service built a world-class historic park dedicated to its rich maritime tradition. The San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park houses impressive collections of some 35,000 seafaring images and artifacts that range from actual bits and pieces of sailing ships to naval documentation and fine art. The museum berths eight historic vessels including a square-rigger, three schooners, two tugboats and a houseboat, and its Small Craft collection houses more than 100 “traditional and significant” boats (mostly powered by oars). Visitors can tour the museum’s fleet and then take in the art that resides in the “Bathhouse Building”, before retiring to the library to learn more about how maritime trading helped to define the city’s future.
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