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The Kalmar Nyckel Sails into a New Era

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With each voyage along the Atlantic coast, the Kalmar Nyckel inspires amazement and sheer awe among those who gaze upon her masts and sails. From Cape Charles, Va., to Provincetown, Mass., the replicated tall ship tells the story of settlers who established the colony of New Sweden in Delaware in 1638.

When she returns to dock at the 7th Street Peninsula in Wilmington, where she sits idle from November through March, the story now continues. Thanks to the Copeland Maritime Center, historians and educators can now regale visitors year-round with tales of life on the high seas in the 17th century.

With three floors of educational space, exhibits and a three-quarter-scale model of the ship’s main deck, the Copeland Maritime Center is a brick-and-mortar counterpart to the Kalmar Nyckel ship itself. In the 18 months since the $3.6 million building opened, hundreds of children and adults have visited one of the Wilmington Riverfront’s up-and-coming tourist destinations.

The building and the land around it are the results of a strategic plan made by the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation members and trustees in 2008. 

“The changes we wanted to commit to were two-pronged,” says chairman John Morton. “We first wanted to upgrade and expand the reach and scope of our education program. And the second was that we wanted to stay here at this site, to build out the shipyard area to include Old Swedes Church and Fort Christina as a one-stop historical destination that tells the story of Delaware’s earliest settlers.”

Nearly $11 million has gone into improving the seven acres. The work has included remediation of contaminated brownfields, demolition of temporary buildings on the site, installing pilings to support the museum above the flood plain and adding nearly 125 parking spaces for visitors.

Part of the land was gifted by a former owner, who found the property unsellable in 2012. Some parcels are leased to the foundation by the city of Wilmington. Private donations, including a grant from the Longwood Foundation, helped fund the design, provided by Bernardon Haber Holloway Architects (recently renamed Bernardon), as well as development by Bancroft Construction, both based in Wilmington. 

Since launching in 1997, the Kalmar Nyckel has welcomed 15,000 to 20,000 visitors a year from foot traffic in Wilmington, a second home in Lewes and other stops along the eastern seaboard. The full-scale re-creation of Peter Minuit’s original ship sails more than 3,000 nautical miles each year.

But it’s inside the new building where Sam Heed, senior historian and director of education, carries an almost unbridled excitement for what the center has become and for the future of the 7th Street Peninsula.

“The ship is an extraordinary resource and a window from which people can understand sailing and what it took for settlers to get to America in the 17th century,” Heed says.

“Now we are a first-class museum and a destination
that Wilmingtonians can look upon with pride,”
says Copeland Maritime Center’s 
executive director Cathy Parsells.

Sam Heed is the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation’s
senior historian and director of education.

“But when the boat is shuttered and docked in the winter months, we really didn’t have anywhere to tell that story and demonstrate what takes place on the boat itself. This building is an extension of the ship, and it’s our responsibility to show guests a first-rate experience when they come here. The biggest benefit is that we can now do that year-round.” 

The 18,000 square feet of space begins in the main lobby, where murals depict the Kalmar Nyckel’s original route across the Atlantic, as well as its landing on The Rocks by Finnish and Swedish voyagers in March 1638. Heed refers to the surrounding area as a breakout educational space large enough to host lectures and feature demonstrations for walking tours and classroom visits.


MORE: Couple’s extensive collection buoys Copeland Maritime Center


Up the elevator to the second floor lies the crown jewel of the museum: a three-quarter-scale model of the Kalmar Nyckel’s main deck. On display are two masts, both of which include a foresail and foreyard. While one is static, the other operates so that kids of all ages can experience virtual sailing.

“Our captain even uses the mock-up as a training ground for initiation into real sailing before getting on the boat itself,” Heed says. “It gives you a sense of the sophistication of the rig. It works magnificently for kids by capturing their attention and provides a hands-on education program that beats any lecture.”

The Kalmar Nyckel’s stern carvings are newly painted with period-correct hues. 

Two replica guns—a six-pound cannon and four-pound cannon—are also present on the boat, so that tours can include an authentic gun drill (but much quieter). In all, the second floor features seven educational stations, including a trade game simulation, a navigation station, and a science-technology-engineering-math area that can double as a lunch space or conference area.

The second floor also features a Finnish log cabin from the 1890s, which was acquired by Heed from a colleague in Idaho. It shows students and adults what kind of living quarters the early settlers inhabited on land. (The ship’s bunk area shows quarters at sea.) Across from the cabin sits a separate room that features a “Watercraft of the World” exhibit

Though the third floor primarily houses office space for the center’s staff, the rear of the first floor (closest to the Christina River) has been outfitted with a first-rate maintenance area for the volunteers who help with ship repairs and upkeep throughout the year. Though closed to the public, the open space features masts, rigging, ropes, and sewing and carpentry stations—a significant upgrade from the former 10,000 square feet of space the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation occupied before 2014. More than 300 volunteers and a seasonal crew of four share the space.

The full-scale re-creation of Peter Minuit’s original
ship launched in 1997.

Executive director Cathy Parsells calls the museum and surrounding area, which includes a wheelchair accessible dock that serves as a stop for water taxis traveling up and down the Christina River, a positive addition to the city.

“We were just an administrative building before, with a simple carpentry shop attached, just a little over a year ago,” Parsells says. “Now we are a first-class museum and a destination that Wilmingtonians can look upon with pride. This area of the 7th Street Peninsula is up-and-coming, and we plan to show all the land has to offer to the visitors we expect this year.”

Parsells and the center’s staff are planning several events to show off the museum and neighboring historical sites this month. The most notable is the Spring Fest at Fort Christina, planned for April 17 from noon to 5 p.m.

The free family-friendly event will include a re-creation of the Kalmar Nyckel’s landing at the 7th Street Peninsula, tours of Old Swedes Church, educational stations and activities for kids, and a musical finale at 4 p.m. Tours of the ship and museum will run the standard $5 for adults and $3 for kids, and there will be build-a-boat activities for children for $5, as well as food trucks on hand providing concessions for sale. For more information on Spring Fest, as well as guided tours of the Kalmar Nyckel and museum, go to www.kalmarnyckel.org.

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