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Museum Afloat

There's only one place on earth where you can see everything from a 100-million-year-old petri-fied dinosaur egg to an antique Japanese fiddle, circa-1600 Spanish pirate sword, fleet of Texaco model toy planes and much more … and it's actually on the sea. Long-time Virgin Islands resident, Randy Bullington, has turned his 64-foot Chris-Craft houseboat into a wondrous museum that also doubles as his private home.

Born in Illinois, Bullington grew up in a military family, left home at a young age and traveled the world. This short-circuiting of his childhood has left inside of him a perpetual 'kid' and this youthful exuberance has come out through his avid hobby as a collector. The nautical bent to Bullington's collecting started when he moved to the Caribbean in the late 1970s and landed a job at Caribbean Yacht Charters (CYC). He worked his way from the yard to delivery crew, making 27 voyages of 1000 nautical miles or more. When friends were in the market to sell their houseboat, Bullington signed on as buyer. The boat has proven a perfect platform to store and showcase his collections as well as to create a comfortable self-contained home.

"I've always been curious about weird things, everything from collectables to memorabilia," Bullington tells, as we sit together atop the boat where an artificial grass rug, metal folding chairs and a wooden side table decorated like a cat makes a gem of a perch from which to watch sunrises and sunsets.

It is inside Bullington's boat, anchored in a secluded bay, where there's real treasure. Nestled neatly on shelves on either side of a wheel that once drove this moored vessel, there are a bounty of artifacts all arranged by subject and many labeled by name and era. For example, there's the collection of prehistoric pieces that Bullington bought from an archaeologist when he briefly lived in Colorado. These include the dinosaur egg, a petrified turtle shell from the same era, a more recent (75 million year old) T-rex tooth, a duo of Anasazi spirit pipes and an early knife crafted out of a hand's length of Elkhorn with a chiseled stone point tied on to the end.

Fast-forward to the mid-20th century and the pieces on the shelf below are six to eight inch model toy airplane banks made by Texaco. Each model represents a record in the company's aviation history and Bullington can tell you the story behind each one.

A look to the right, underneath a window with a beautiful bay view and breeze, is a sampling of Bullington's pirate collection. There are pieces of eight, and pieces of eight cut into halves and quarters as pirates once did to sell for booty, a 400-year-old rum bottle, and a whale tooth inscribed with one of his favorite sayings, 'May all you ever want be the least you ever get'. There's also pirate-era memorabilia to the left of the wheel – cannon balls, pistol shots and slave bracelets recovered from the wreck of the English Schooner Duoro, which sank near the Isles of Scilly, off the southwestern tip of Cornwall, England, in 1843.

It's amazing how Bullington has integrated his collections with his living quarters. For example, you can pop the top off a beer bottle with an early 20th century Coca-Cola branded opener. His bathroom, bedroom and storage area are all meticulously decorated with curios. There's a drinking flask from the 1880s and a Mason jar mouse trap, a sheriff's badge from the 19th century when Colorado was just a territory, miniature race cars, African masks, intricately carved wooden jewelry boxes that hid cigarettes for those women who wanted to smoke discretely in the 1950s, autographed baseballs, pins from the Munich Olympics, a New York City taxi badge from 1938, and the antique fiddle given to him by Sunny Mountain Fiddler, Dick Solberg. Bullington has played washboard for Solberg for the last five years.

What does Bullington like best about collecting?

"Once you buy it, every time you look at it you remember the story behind it," he says. "I'm not one to put things away and forget about them. I'll re-arrange everything on my days off, take some stuff out and put others away depending on my mood. I guess you could say I play with them. It's the kid in me."

Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.

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