A tall ship is a perfect learning laboratory for almost every academic subject! On Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain, students and teachers get a hands-on glimpse into 18th century history by learning about early American explorers and sailors. Social studies is a major part of the Voyage of Explorers field trip too, as it provides insight into cultural exchange between the “Boston Men” and the diverse trade groups Lady Washington encountered, including First Nations, Chinese, Hawaiian, Japanese, and more. While our current program doesn’t address the sciences directly, keen observers can clearly see how physics and math are ever present in tall ship navigation, and how biology is a critical part of life at sea.

What many people do not know is that tall ships are also places of vibrant arts! In the 1700s, as well as today, the traditional arts and music of sailors can be found on nearly every sailing vessel. Here are a few examples you will find aboard Historical Seaport’s boats:


Knotwork, also known as fancywork, refers to ornate patterns of rope tied, braided, or stitched into works of art. Twine or old line on the ship make the perfect material for knotwork, and can be used to create intricate functional items like deck mats or gripping for tools. Other knotwork is purely decorative, meant to personalize a sailor’s belongings or provide sailors as secondary source of income as artisans when at port. On Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain, you can find knotwork on the ship’s bell, the hand rails, on glass bottles, and more. Some masters of knotwork build elaborate knot boards showcasing the various kinds of knots they can tie; this knot board was created by Jason Linnett of Tongue Point Job Crops who has worked with Historical Seaport on knot tying demonstrations using these time honored techniques.


A voyage at sea aboard a tall ship can be a tedious affair! To pass the time, many sailors practice their illustrations. Sailors who keep journals often adorn the pages with sketches of their vessel, the marine life they encounter, or of the places they visit.  Many sailors have traded in their pen or pencil for knives, becoming skilled carvers of scrimshaw (illustrations etched into ivory, bones, or teeth). Carving is also an essential skill for carpenters, as they design figureheads and ornate details for the ship. These unique illustrations are the hall mark of a skilled crasftsman. On land, many sailors have become great painters of maritime scenes. Today, you can even find comic and graphic novelists who’ve honed their craft aboard a tall ship. Lucy Bellwood, author and illustrator of the comic Baggywrinkles, is a longtime volunteer of Historical Seaport’s boats.

Shanties and Instrumental Music

Voyage of Explorers field trip participants know that shanties are a regular part of the Historical Seaport tall ship experience! While our favorite shanties reflect English and American musical origins, singing is a universal part of all maritime cultures. Sailors brought traditional tunes with them from their home countries, and wrote and adapted shanties based on their experiences at sea. Many of Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain’s crew bring their musical instruments with them when coming aboard. Guitars, fiddles, mandolins, and even ukeleles are not uncommon in maritime musical history.


One of the most common forms of art you can find on a Historical Seaport tall ship is tattoos! Body art is a very significant part of sailor culture, and many maritime tattoos are rich with meaning. Have you seen a member of the Lady Washington or Hawaiian Chieftain crew with a swallow? It might mean that person has sailed over 5000 nautical miles! A rooster tattoo on the right foot and a pig tattoo on the left foot are meant to prevent drowning, and a boatswain’s mate can be identified by crossed anchors between their thumb and index finger. Other tattoos are meant to illustrate the things sailors care about –their ship, their shipmates, and those they’ve left behind. Capt. Ryan Downs includes the phrase “2-6” in this tattoo, a command used to coordinate line hauling with others.

Poetry and Literature

Although sailors are often known for being rough around the edges, you will often find that a ship is home to a number of poets.  Groups like Fisherpoets compile the poetic works of those who find inspiration from their lives at sea. Authors of literary novels have found inspiration in tall ships for centuries. Some of the most famous maritime authors have spent extended time as crew or passengers aboard tall ships, including Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Patrick O’Brien.


Keep an eye out for these forms of artwork during your next visit to Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain. And, put some of these art forms to practice yourself! Teachers, have your students drawn pictures of their Voyage of Explorers field trip? Share them with us! We love seeing how your class has embraced the artistic side of maritime heritage!


You can find more examples of maritime arts –including art, literature, and music– in the all new Grays Harbor Historical Seaport store!