Preserving the authentic experience at Mystic Seaport

Restoring Steamboat Sabino

SabinoWorkingOne of the advantages Mystic Seaport - The Museum of America and the Sea - has is its expansive waterfront location in the Mystic River in Connecticut.

Not only does the river enable storage and display of as many as 70 watercraft in the context of a recreated historic village, it also provides the ability to give visitors the opportunity to get out on the water and experience for themselves what it is like to be transported on an historic vessel. Since 1973, the primary vessel for this activity at Mystic Seaport has been the steamboat Sabino, which serves as a working exhibit. She is operated during the warmer months on regularly scheduled runs for the enjoyment and education of visitors.

A varied career

Sabino is the oldest wooden, coal-fired steamboat in regular operation in the U.S. Built in 1908 in East Boothbay, Maine, by W. Irving Adams, she spent most of her career ferrying passengers and cargo between Maine towns and islands. She first operated on the Damariscotta and Kennebec Rivers in midcoast Maine. From 1927 to 1960 she served the islands of Casco Bay, running out of Portland. For this service her narrow hull was widened with sponsons to make her more stable in the open waters of the bay. Although her configuration and passenger capacity changed through the years, her engine did not. She is still powered by the two-cylinder Paine compound steam engine installed in 1908. Coincidentally, the engine was manufactured in Noank, Connecticut, just a few miles down the Mystic River from her present berth at the museum. Sabino was formally designated a National Historic Landmark in 1992.

As with any boat of Sabino’s vintage, there comes a time when regular maintenance is superseded by the need for more extensive restoration. That moment was reached in 2014 as the keel bolts were nearing mandatory replacement and areas around the shaft log and deadwood in the stern needed serious attention. The boat’s boiler also needed a detailed evaluation to determine its continued viability. The decision was made to take her out of service so this work and other necessary tasks could be completed.

Benefits of an on-site shipyard


Mystic Seaport is very fortunate to have its own shipyard on site to restore and maintain its collection of more than 500 watercraft. Opened in 1973, the Henry B. DuPont Preservation Shipyard has a large shop that can house boats as large as Sabino to permit indoor work and a shiplift platform that can haul vessels up to 580 long tons. Other shipyard features are a rigging loft, a paint shop, a metalworking shop, a documentation shop, lumber shed and a saw mill. Beyond its stewardship of the museum’s watercraft, the facility serves as a training ground for the sharing and preservation of traditional techniques. Once in the shop, the shipwrights got to work on Sabino and replaced the stairs, forward decks, the horn timber, shaft log, some of the deadwood, and a number of frames, as well as the keel bolts and about 20-25 planks of varying lengths.

Useful leftovers

Sabino originally was constructed of a mix of Maine hardwoods. In this restoration, the white oak frames needing replacement were fabricated from live oak left over from the museum’s restoration of the 1841 whaleship Charles W. Morgan. A 10” x 10” curved timber cut to be a futtock on the whaleship could be sawn on a shipsaw and provide two matching 3” x 3“ flitches for frames on the smaller steamboat. “We’ve sort of made a policy that, when we can, we shift over to live oak for framing just for the durability. It’s similar to our practice of switching over to bronze screws instead of iron, you get more time out of the option,” said Walter Ansel, the lead shipwright on the project.

















New boiler

The inspection of the boiler revealed that replacement was the most sensible course of action both from a cost and an operational perspective. Not surprisingly, a boiler suitable for the boat would have to be custom-designed and fabricated; a process that involves substantial regulatory approval and certification. As there are no known blueprints for the present unit that dates to 1940, the designer has had to reverse engineer the boiler to come up with a design that is visually and functionally similar, but meets modern codes. The new boiler will remain fired by coal. “It is very important to the museum that we maintain the authenticity of the operation of Sabino for historical integrity and for the experience of our visitors,” says Steve White, president of Mystic Seaport. “This has raised the level of difficulty and cost of the project, but we need to remain true to our mission.”

Grant-assisted restoration

The $875,000 restoration is being funded in part with government support. The Institute of Museum and Library Services awarded $149,000 in a 1:1 matching grant, and $199,806 was provided by a Maritime Heritage Program grant from the U.S. National Park Service in partnership with the Maritime Administration. The program allocates approximately $2.6 million for projects that teach about and preserve sites and objects related to American maritime history. Other grants support work on the USS Constitution, the cruiser USS Olympia, and the ironclad USS Monitor. Work on the hull of Sabino was completed in early summer 2016 and the boat was launched in July 2016. Presently she awaits her new boiler which has been designed and will be manufactured once U.S. Coast Guard certification is received. Current plans have her returning to service in late spring 2017.

Links: Sabino page:

Shipyard Blog:



Top - Sabino, built in 1908 underway on the Mystic River
Centre - The refit of Sabino underway in Mystic Seaport's own shipyard
Bottom - Re-planking a section of Sabino's hill during the refit