BATH — Standing out on the end of the dock at the Maine Maritime Museum, you are struck by the simple elegance of the relatively tiny 73-foot wooden schooner in front of you compared to Bath Iron Work’s giant blue Land Level Transfer Facility just up the river, where it puts massive steel destroyers into the water.

“I think it’s so cool that we have that juxtaposition so visually right here,” Katie Spiridakis, director of communications for the museum, said.

The small ship is the Mary E. Built in 1906 on the site where BIW currently stands, it is the oldest Bath-built vessel still floating, and she reminds one of a time when Bath was known more for its wooden ships, not the steel destroyers it produces now.

Back at the beginning of the 20th century, ships like the Mary E were common.

“That’s one of the unique characteristics of Mary E … in 1906 there was nothing exceptional or special about her,” Spiridakis said.

“These were like a dime a dozen. That one survived this long for no good reason is pretty amazing.”
Thomas E. Hagan, of Bath, built the schooner over a century ago, and quickly sold it to some individuals from Block Island, Rhode Island. By the time it got there, the vessel had already received her first modification — a gasoline engine.

In the decades after that, the Mary E seems to have done a little bit of everything. While her history isn’t certain, accounts list her as being used at various times for fishing, trade, passenger or postal service, and maybe even rum-running.

In World War II, the ship was re-outfitted as a dragger, and engaged in the fishing trade for some years before she sank in a hurricane off the coast of Massachusetts. Seeing an ad asking $200 for a half-sunken Bath-built ship, William R. Donnell II, of Bath, bought the Mary E, had her raised and brought to Bath where she underwent a two-year restoration process.

Following that there were a number of owners who used it as a passenger vessel or for their own pleasure, until it was bought in 2006 by Matt Culen, who began another restoration effort.

In 2016, Maine Maritime Museum acquired the schooner that represented such an important piece of Bath history, determined to bring her home.

“There couldn’t be a more perfect boat for us, I think,” Spiridakis said.

Restoration of the Mary E. has been ongoing since 2017. Courtesy of Maine Maritime Museum

Spiridakis said the museum has launched a campaign to raise $2 million to restore the Mary E and keep her in good condition for museum visitors for years to come. The campaign is in two phases: The initial phase of acquisition and restoration and a second phase for long-term maintenance.

The museum has already raised $1.1 million toward the project, which covers the first phase. Now the museum is entering the second phase of fundraising.

“The second phase we’re calling “Keep Her Sailing,” so that’s our long-term maintenance,” Spiridakis said. “Right now we’re just building those reserves so that we have money for annual maintenance and anything else that might come up.”

“Obviously, a vessel in the water — particularly a wooden vessel — has a unique set of challenges, most notably the long-term maintenance that is going to be required,” she added.

“Just having something that requires that much maintenance is a huge obligation that is not typical of collections objects.”

Already, restoration efforts have been significantly more expensive than expected.

“Hugely more expensive,” Spiridakis said. “I think, actually, the work overall doubled from what we had originally anticipated. Once they started getting in there, things just kept getting uncovered.”

While the original plan was to simply replace the decking and bulwarks, the shipwrights involved, led by master shipwright Andros Kypragoras, ended up making a number of changes, including essentially redoing the back 10 to 15 feet of the entire schooner.

“What’s unique about the Mary E’s restoration is, in addition to getting a whole bunch of new wood, is they decided to reframe the whole 14 feet of the stern,” Kurt Spiridakis, director of watercraft and traditional skills (and Katie’s husband), said. “They basically cut off the whole back of the boat.”

Although the Mary E didn’t look bad for a century-old boat (she was still floating at least) over the years her stern had drooped noticeably. To restore her to her original look and ensure she was shipshape for years to come, the shipwrights decided to reframe the stern — a wieldy endeavor to say the least.

“That was one of the most interesting parts of the restoration for the shipwrights — figuring out how to bring her stern back up to the original lines of the boat,” he said.

While they didn’t have original blueprints to the ship or anything like that, he said it was clear that something was off. The newly reframed stern is just the newest modification to a ship that has seen multiple changes and restorations over the years.

“There have been so many restorations before we got her, we don’t know what is original,” Katie Spiridakis said.

Yet despite new parts, new framing and fresh paint, the ship probably looks closer to what she did in 1906 than she has in decades.

“We reconfigured the whole deck so she’d be more closely matched to a 1906 fishing schooner, which is what her original intention was, because she had many other lifetimes since then,” Katie Spiridakis said. “This is much more the traditional configuration.”

According to Kurt Spiridakis, they still have a lot to do before the recommissioning of the Mary E, including putting the masts in. Still, the mass of the year-long process has been completed.

A life at the museum

The crew of the Mary E brings the schooner to dock. Nathan Strout - Times Record

Following the recommissioning, the Mary E will be a regular part of the museum through October, although staff are still working out what they’ll use her for.

“For this year we’re taking it very easy,” Kate Spiridakis said. “The majority of the time she’s going to be at the dock.”
The museum has hired a captain and crew for the vessel, but it could be a while before they’re comfortable enough to take people out on tours.

“We don’t have any paid cruises scheduled right now. We’re going to really see how she handles and what we’re comfortable with. We don’t even know how long it would take her to get down to the point and back,” Katie Spiridakis said.

“It’s impossible to schedule those kinds of things until we get the rig on her and see what it’s like.”

In the meantime, the Mary E will be open to museum visitors at no extra cost, and volunteers will be on board to explain the history and features of the vessel. It will also be on display at the Boothbay Windjammer Festival and Tall Ships Portland later this summer.

The museum will have a recommissioning ceremony for the restored schooner from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.
This will be the first chance members of the public will have to climb on board the more than a century-old schooner.

Volunteers will be on hand to explain the vessel’s history, and there will be a number of activities for visitors, with live music, demonstrations, food trucks and more. Visitors can also explore the museum’s other exhibits and features.

Admission will be reduced to $6 for adults and free for children under 12.