Bath museum ready to recommission historic Mary E schooner

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BATH — The Mary E, a storied ship due to be recommissioned Saturday, moved closer to that big day last Friday with the re-installation, or stepping, of its foremast.

Shipbuilder Thomas Hagan constructed the two-masted clipper schooner in 1906 in a Houghton shipyard, where Bath Iron Works now stands. The neighboring Maine Maritime Museum, which purchased the 73-foot vessel in early 2017 for $140,000, will host a recommissioning ceremony on the Kennebec River behind its 243 Washington St. headquarters from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. June 9.

The June 1 milestone brought a small crowd of onlookers, as a crew led by master shipwright Andros Kypragoras first placed the bowsprit – a spar that extends forward from the vessel’s prow – followed by the foremast. A crane was used to lower each piece from the shore down to the ship, docked in the river.

Amy Lent, the museum’s executive director, said she was “very excited” as she watched the hubbub along the shore as the crew prepared for the installations.

“This has been a huge collaborative project, with amazing shipwrights,” she said, referring to both Kypragoras and Kurt Spiridakis, the museum’s director of watercraft and traditional skills. They and their team “have done just an absolutely phenomenal job.”

“To see these kind of skills maintained, and to watch these guys work and see how they do it, has been a treat for all of us,” Lent added.

While the Mary E is a Bath-built – and twice Bath-restored – vessel, it’s something special throughout the Maine coast due to its near extinction, she noted.

“This is like the Ford Ranger of boats, of her day,” Lent said with a laugh. “They were everywhere. It was the most common boat, used for all kinds of purposes, and now there’s not one single one left, except for this one. So this is so representative of Maine’s Maritime heritage in so many different ways.”

Adhering to the ancient seafaring rituals, a 1906 Indian head penny was placed at the mast step, or base of the foremast; the year reflects the Mary E’s date of construction. A 2018 coin, a nod to this latest relaunch, will be placed under the other mast.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered to witness the uniting of this past with this ship,” Anne Witty, the museum’s chief curator, joked before giving her formal remarks on the foremast’s placement.

She noted that the Mary E’s restoration represents not just the museum’s offering of objects from the past, but also customs of days bygone.

“The things that really make Maritime museum live, the skills so amply demonstrated by the shipwrights, and the riggers, and the crane operators and all the people who have raised interest and funds to help Mary E get to this moment, those skills are also important for us to preserve,” Witty said.

The ancient Greeks placed coins under their masts so money would be available to pay Charon the ferryman when the vessels took their souls across the River Styx into the afterlife of Hades, according to Witty.

The ritual has since then taken on other meanings, “and today we use it as a symbol of good luck, to ensure fair winds for the Mary E, a safe life, and should worse come to worse, we have a little bit of money to pay the ferryman,” she added with a smile.

The schooner hasn’t always encountered the best of luck, or fairest of winds. It literally hit rock bottom 55 years ago.

Having spent a few decades as a fishing and trade vessel, and then as a dragger, the ship was abandoned in 1960 and sank after a hurricane on Thanksgiving 1963 in Lynn Harbor, Massachusetts.

William Donnell of Bath – whose great-grandfather was a shipbuilder associated with Hagan – bought the vessel in 1965 for $200 and brought it back home for restoration. Following that two-year endeavor, Mary E became a passenger vessel in the Maine Windjammer Fleet.

It is believed to be the oldest Bath-built wooden ship still floating – and the oldest Maine-built fishing schooner that still sails.

The ship in 1906 was originally owned by Block Island, Rhode Island, residents William, Dwight and Curtis Dunn, along with Jesse Lewis. Although the origin of the name “Mary E” is not certain, the wife of one of the owners was named Mary E. Dunn.

The Mary E was last owned by Matt Culen of Pelham, New York, who spent 2006-16 restoring the planking and framing below the water line, according to  Spiridakis. Since then, Kypragoras’ crew has replaced all frames and replanked the hull above the waterline, as well as reframing and planking the deck, and replacing the engine.

A $2 million fundraising campaign is underway to pay for the Mary E’s acquisition, restoration, and its ongoing maintenance. The museum has so far raised almost $1.2 million, which covered the purchase and restoration costs.

A gala fundraiser is to be held Friday, June 8. More information is available at mainemaritimemuseum.org.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

The Mary E after the foremast and bowspit were installed on the Kennebec River June 1. The vessel is due to be recommissioned at Maine Maritime Museum in Bath Saturday, June 9.

Master shipwright Andros Kypragoras paints the base of the Mary E’s foremast before it’s installed on the vessel.

A crane lifts the Mary E’s foremast from a worksite along the shores of the Kennebec River.

Master shipwright Andros Kypragoras, standing, and rigger Tom Ward guide the Mary E’s foremast into place.

The foremast settles into place on the Mary E.

In keeping with seafaring tradition, this 1906 Indian-head penny, donated to the Maine Maritime Museum, was placed under the Mary E’s foremast.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.