Restoration of historic Bath schooner aims for spring 2018 relaunch

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BATH — The Mary E has a storied past on the shores of the Kennebec.

The two-masted clipper schooner was constructed by shipbuilder Thomas Hagan in 1906 in a Houghton shipyard, where Bath Iron Works now stands. After sinking in the 1960s, the vessel returned to Bath for restoration before heading back out to sea.

Five decades later, the Mary E is finally home to stay, being restored to proper form.

A crew led by shipwright Andros Kypragoras worked on various parts of the 73-foot vessel inside an open-walled structure Aug. 1, as Kurt Spiridakis – director of watercraft and traditional skills for Maine Maritime Museum – gave a tour of the craft. The schooner sits on the shorefront campus of the 243 Washington St. museum, which purchased it late last year for $140,000.

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

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, Spiridakis said. Kypragoras’ crew is focused on replacing the Mary E’s deck.

“They took off a bunch of planks, took off the deck, and then realized there was a lot of framing up top that was rotten,” Spiridakis said. “And the boat was not close to being symmetrical. … They made the port side as good as they could get it, and now they’re making the starboard side fit that shape.”

Much work is being done at the drooping stern of the boat, to raise it back up. With a lot of new wood – such as a replacement transom, which reinforces the stern – going into the ship, the project is considered a rehabilitation, Spiridakis said. The engine will be replaced, too.

Spiridakis first saw the vessel on visits to Connecticut and was part of the Mary E’s crew when it sailed to Bath from Long Island, New York.

“It was interesting when the guys were taking it apart, to see what rough shape she was in,” Spiridakis recalled. “And then think about how we had been on her for five days.”

Different periods of work, and types of wood, over the past century can be seen on the stripped-down schooner; original parts of the shape can potentially be seen in the keel, Spiridakis said.

“This is probably the most substantial rehab she’s had since the ’60s,” he noted.

That was the time the Mary E had literally hit rock bottom. Having spent a few decades as a fishing and trade vessel, then as a dragger, she was abandoned in 1960 and sank after a hurricane on Thanksgiving 1963 in Lynn Harbor, Massachusetts.

Her fortunes changed in 1965 when William Donnell of Bath – whose great-grandfather was a shipbuilder associated with Hagan – bought the vessel 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’s kind of cool that someone is doing a major restoration in basically the same place as she was 50 years ago,” Spiridakis said.

He expects work to continue through the winter with shrink wrap around the vessel’s containing structure, and then for the Mary E to launch once again for cruises next spring.

“We feel like this is our one chance to get it right, so we might as well take the time now,” Spiridakis said. “… We want this to be an artifact of the museum for people to come and see for the next 50 years, or 100 years.”

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

The Mary E, being restored on the Bath campus of the Maine Maritime Museum, was built nearby on the Kennebec River in 1906.

Aaron Freeman builds the frame for the new transom of the Mary E, an 111-year-old schooner the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath purchased late last year. The restoration, led by shipwright Andros Kypragoras, should be complete next spring.

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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.