1But any instinctual fear quickly subsided, giving way to applause as the Custom House Maritime Museum fired its one-eighth scale working replica of a USS Constitution 24-powder cannon to signal the opening of its fourth annual model ship exhibition.
"Fighting Sails — Conflict at Sea in the Age of Canvas" highlights famous warships throughout history. Primarily focused on vessels from the 8th century Viking Era through the War of 1812, the display includes model replicas of the USS Constitution, HMS Victory, Sweden's Vasa and the USS Raleigh.
Bill Partridge, the museum's vice president and Collections Committee chairman, says the exhibit offers a three-dimensional education on maritime history.
"Reading about ships out of a book is difficult to visualize, but with exhibits like this, you can excite all age levels," Partridge says.
The 15-member Collections Committee has been meeting since January to pull together the exhibit. They settled on the theme after what the group says was strong public support for a display of wartime boats among those who came out to see last summer's model show.
"Fighting Sails" spotlights the efforts of 32 ship modelers from across New England, some independent and some members of modeling clubs. Sponsored by the Newburyport Five Cents Savings Bank, the exhibit will be on display through September.
One of Mike Swanson of Rowley's models — the massive HMS Victory — was completed over the course of 25 years. He spent three years on the ship model's hull alone. Swanson then took a 20-year hiatus from the project, during which time he researched the vessel's rigging. He spent another two years incorporating all the detail work.
"Ship modeling is artistic and problem-solving," Swanson says. "There's no instant gratification. It's always a long process."
The retired civil engineer views ship modeling as a therapeutic hobby.