Newport, Rhode Island, is arguably the capital city of American yachting. The glory days of the America's Cup were sailed here, and every summer its harbor fills with sailboats of all sizes.
Located at historic Fort Adams State Park, the Museum of Yachting looks over the sparkling expanse of Newport Harbor and the graceful arches of the bridge to Jamestown Island. Inside the long, two-story brick building, the museum encompasses more than 150 years of sailboat construction, cruising, and competition. Its collections represent the fabric of yachting history-wooden binnacles, fiberglass hull sections, canvas sails, titanium booms, bronze fittings, and of course, silver trophies.
Three happy circumstances make the Museum of Yachting a special place: its spectacular location, its fascinating collection, and the opportunity to watch boatbuilders at work on a vessel yet to kiss saltwater.
The museum's first floor quickly puts the visitor in contact with the continuing tradition of American boatbuilding. Only a few steps beyond the front door and museum store, one is greeted by the magical aroma of wood shavings, the voices of boatbuilders doing what they love, and the vision of a hull in construction.
During my visit, a team from Boothbay Harbor Shipyard was constructing a plank-on-frame, 6-meter racing sloop using a 1927 design by Olin Stephens. One builder, who hailed from Portland, Oregon, happily answered my questions, while his partner fitted hull planks into place. He explained that in addition to oak, they were using maxa, a South American wood, to build the sloop, named Cherokee. Later, when I was in the second-floor exhibits and immersed in yachting's heritage, I had a new perspective on the Cherokee's construction, this time through a large rectangular opening in the floor.
In addition to this unusual view of boatbuilders at work, the main galleries on the second floor present visitors with thoughtfully organized and artifact-rich exhibits. Anyone even slightly familiar with the racing, rivalry, and technology of the America's Cup competition will wander happily through "The Newport Years" exhibit. It offers an excellent collection of yacht models, half-hulls, race paintings, and photographs. Interspersed among these are wonderful artifacts that connect visitors directly with the famous races. Between 1899 and 1930 Sir Thomas Lipton tried and failed five times to win the America's Cup. On display are china from his Shamrocks and a metal box of Lipton's Ceylon Tea; yes, he was that Lipton.
Elsewhere in the America's Cup exhibit the meticulous hand stitching on a staysail clew (bottom aft part of the sail) from the J-boat Ranger (1937) testifies to the weight of canvas sails and the artistry of sailmakers. An enormous iron masthead rig, also from the Ranger, resides here. So do the green-and-white shirts worn by Ted Turner's crew in Courageous during its successful defense of the cup in 1977.
At the time of my visit, the second-floor gallery at the opposite end of the building featured a major temporary exhibit, "The Grand Voyages of Arthur Curtiss James." Though the immensely wealthy James (1867-1941) is not well known today, he was a commanding presence in the yachting world, serving as commodore of the New York Yacht Club. James cruised the world in his yachts Aloha and Coronet. Visitors familiar with Newport may be surprised to learn that the building that now houses the well-known Black Pearl Restaurant on Bannister's Wharf was built for James as a sail loft.
"The Grand Voyages" exhibit used an intriguing combination of artifacts, photographs, ship models, and videos. Among the treasures displayed were the handsomely carved binnacle from Aloha and the green-and-white swallowtail flag that was James' private signal. Most impressive was the assembly of the Coronet's quarterdeck featuring the wheel, binnacle, and even a brass cannon for signaling and saluting. The gilded age of yachting became almost palpable to me as I stood by the wheel, looked out at Newport Harbor, and heard whistle buoys sounding in the distance.
The Museum of Yachting is a pleasant 15-minute trip along Ocean Drive from the heart of Newport, or you may begin your maritime experience by taking a water taxi from downtown. Visitors should consult the museum's Web site at www.moy.org for up-to-date information about hours of operation, special events, and new exhibits. The museum is only open during the summer, usually from mid-May to 1 October. Its hours are 1000-1800 daily except Tuesday, when it is closed. Admission is $5 and free to children under 18 and students with a valid student ID.