Downtown's biggest tourist draw gets a new home

The idea of crowds of tourists being drawn to New London's waterfront for seafaring tales of drama and heroism remains a distant dream while the National Coast Guard Museum tries to raise the money to make it all happen.

But it is worth noting, now that Mystic Whaler Cruises, New London's existing marine attraction, has a spacious new storefront on Water Street, that there is indeed already a seafaring attraction drawing tourists to Union Station and the waterfront behind it.

The Mystic Whaler, despite its name and its early years of sailing out of the more tourism-oriented port to the east, is now very much a New London boat, having made the city its homeport for the busy summer sailing season for more than a dozen years.

This summer, the ship will have a new prominence downtown, with a new office and showroom adjacent to Union Station and across from the Water Street parking garage, the former bus terminal building.

The move, say John and Pat Eginton, who own the 52-year-old, 110-foot schooner, was prompted by the late James Coleman, owner of Union Station and the former chairman of the National Coast Guard Museum Association. Coleman, who died this spring, had offered renting the schooner company the bus station after the bus company moved inside the main terminal building.

Coleman welcomed the Whaler company, which had rented offices in an upper floor of the train station for 11 years, to have a more prominent space in the building and the downtown, Eginton says.

The result is a beautiful new remodeled space to welcome visitors with a waiting area, retail shop and bathrooms. There is also a kitchen that helps the crew with food service on the ship.

The Whaler, which runs catered lunch and dinner cruises, carried 52 day passengers and is often sold out in the summer, especially weekends. They take 28 overnight passengers for three-to-five-day inclusive sailing vacations around southern New England. Some cabins have private baths.

Most all of the whaler's passengers, Eginton says, come to New London to board the boat and don't find it because they are already here as tourists. It's a different dynamic than in Mystic, and here the Whaler is bringing people to town who might not have otherwise come.

"I believe in New London and its waterfront and think it's a great resource," Eginton says.

The company, which hires crew for the summer, many students, has about 10 employees in the peak season.

The Egintons said they were originally drawn to New London because of the promise of its historic waterfront. But it is also a very convenient sailing port and they use 40 percent less fuel than in Mystic since they are often able to sail away from the pier area without using the engine.

The business is actually for sale, although the couple says they don't necessarily expect to find the right buyer soon. Transitions for sailing ships take time, they added.

The Mystic Whaler is of course more than a business for the couple. They met aboard the Whaler back in the 1980s, with a chance encounter in Stonington Harbor. Eginton was captain. His future wife was crew on another schooner also moored in Stonington that night.

Eginton eventually bought the boat in 1994 and began an extensive rebuild. The couple eventually got together, married and make the Whaler their home, living on it even in the winter, while working under canvas at Mystic Seaport Museum.

They look forward to traveling when they sell the Whaler. They've already bought their next boat, a 41-foot motor boat, a trawler. While cruising, they expect to remember some of the 150,000 people they have taken sailing on the Whaler over the years.

Things will be different on the next boat, though, which they have named: Just Us.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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