Pictured Above: The Mary E under sail in Maine. | Maine Maritime Museum Photo
Longtime Greenport residents may remember the Mary E, a classic fishing schooner that for decades was docked at Preston’s in the heart of the village, run as a charter boat by vibraphonist Teddy Charles.
After Mr. Charles sold the boat to local preservationists in 2006, the ship was sold again in 2016 to the Main Maritime Museum in Bath, Maine, which did an extensive renovation before relaunching the boat for historic cruises in 2018. The ship, built in Bath, has been advertised by the museum as the “only Kennebec-built schooner still afloat.”
On July 30 of this year, the Mary E was knocked down by a wind gust while under sail in the Kennebec River, capsizing with 18 passengers on board. The boat was later refloated and brought back to the museum, where plans to repair it are underway.
“We commend our partners in the Bath community for their prompt and effective response which saved the lives of 18 people,” said Capt. Amy E. Florentine, Coast Guard Sector Northern New England Commander, on July 30. “We will ensure a full and thorough investigation is conducted in order to determine what caused the incident.”
The museum has since filed documents in Portland’s U.S. District court maintaining that, according to the federal Supplemental Rules for Admiralty or Maritime Claims and Asset Forfeiture Actions, it used due diligence to make the vessel seaworthy and safe, and that it was “properly equipped and supplied, and in all respects seaworthy and fit for the services for which she was engaged.”
“The vessel sustained damages but was not lost or abandoned,” according to the court filing, which assessed its value after the incident at $150,000.
“We are so grateful for the multiple organizations and individuals that ensured the safety of our passengers – and huge thanks to Sea Tow, the Coast Guard, and the other professionals who helped supervise its return,” said museum representatives in a Facebook post after the boat was returned to its dock on Aug. 1. “Work is ongoing, and we will continue to share more with you as information becomes available.”
The knockdown took place just off Doubling Point Light in the Kennebec River, just downriver from the museum, in gusty winds averaging 10 to 15 knots in an area known for its gusty winds and difficult cross-currents.
This wasn’t the first time the Mary E was swamped, and it isn’t the first harrowing tale in the history of this resilient vessel.
The Mary E, a 73-foot long schooner, was built in Bath in 1906 by Thomas E. Hagan, according to the Maine Maritime Museum. She was sold that year to four men from Block Island, who fished with the boat for 38 years, though the owners also told stories of her being used to carry mail and rum.
She was sold in 1944 to a series of fishermen in Gloucester, Mass., who used her as a dragger, abandoning her in 1960, after which she sank in a hurricane on Thanksgiving of 1963 in Lynn Harbor, Mass.
The love of history and boatbuilding led to her first resurrection, when, in 1965, Bath resident William R. Donnell II, whose great-grandfather had worked with Thomas E. Hagan, purchased the boat and brought her back to Bath to be gutted and rebuilt.
At the time, according to the museum, the Mary E had been stripped down to just one mast, set up with a diesel engine as a fishing boat.
Mr. Donnell set her back up with her original two-masted scooner rigging, and moved her up the Maine coast to Rockland, where he ran charters around Penobscot Bay.
According to the museum, she was “the first historic schooner to be certified as a USGC passenger vessel and paved the way for the entire Maine Windjammer Fleet to become likewise certified vessels.”
More than a decade later, Teddy Charles, then working as a celebrated jazz vibraphonist in New York City, purchased the Mary E in Maine and sailed her to New York, where she became one of the first schooners to sail out of South Street Seaport. He brought her to Greenport in 1990.
Mr. Charles had played with the likes of Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus after filling in one night for pianist Thelonious Monk, who was late for a gig. He tried all his life to balance his love of music and the sea.
“I tried sailing to the Newport Jazz Festival in 1959, but the wind died and I wound up missing the gig altogether,” he told the New York Times in 2003. He said at the time that he’d moved to Greenport hoping to run charters and open up a jazz club, not realizing that there wasn’t much demand for a jazz club in Greenport at the time.
‘’At 75 years old, how much longer can I do this?’’ he told the New York Times on a trip aboard the Mary E out of Greenport in 2003. ‘’It may be my last trip this year. If had a buyer, I’d sell it in 10 minutes and get back to my serious music writing.’’
In 2006, preservationist Matt Culen purchased the boat and began to restore her, with the help of Captain Eric Van Dormolen, in Greenport and then in Connecticut.
The Maine Maritime Museum purchased the vessel in 2016, and did a full restoration at the Percy & Small Shipyard in Bath before relaunching her in 2018, back into the first river she had been launched into more than 100 years prior.
One comment shares much of the sentiment among Facebook followers of the Museum following her righting and return to the dock.
“She is one tough lady. Great to see her standing tall again,” said Bob Morin.
“We are still working to assess Mary E’s condition, and it is our hope that we will get the Mary E sailing again as soon as the work is done to assure the vessel is safe to carry passengers,” said Katie Spiridakis, the museum’s marketing & communications manager, in late September. “Mary E is the last surviving schooner built on the Kennebec, and we are committed to returning the vessel to its mission of carrying our guests on educational and scenic sails on the river where it was launched in 1906. Anyone wishing to contribute to the maintenance and preservation of Mary E can find more information at MaineMaritimeMuseum.org/donate.” — BHY