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The Mary E. And All That Jazz!

As a lifetime Long Islander (YeahBud! Brooklyn and Queens are Long Island!) I’ve visited ports of call from Red Hook to Montauk and Orient. One of my old favorites was Greenport back when potato farmers drove tractors to town for breakfast at 6:30 AM. The town was so salty that when they made local potatoes into delicious “Treat Potato Chips’’ (Remember them?) they didn’t have to salt ‘em!
The town, then, was a step back in time. Shipwrights and big yards serviced trawlers, ferries, tugboats- you name it. It was there I came upon the Sloop Mary E. I don’t recall the year, but it was before the battered pick-up trucks were replaced by polished “Play at” trucks and Mercedes SUVs. The Mary E. was birthed at Preston’s, though she moved to other docks at times. She was owned by a Captain Charles. I had also seen her several times before at the South Street Seaport in Manhattan, the Historic District where, in those days, you might find Pete Seeger giving a concert on his Sloop Clearwater.

Captain Charles was a unique man. When his wasn’t taking passengers out for a cruise, he would sit aboard repairing a sail, maybe doing some bright work, having his lunch or smoking a pipe. He always was dressed in a raggedy, sailorly way. I was free to board whenever he was there, and he showed me below several times. He had a cast iron stove where he cooked “Burgo” soup, as he called it. It slow simmered all day. Into this concoction he would throw any food scraps he could lay hands on. Fish, clams, ham, beef, Chicken, potatoes, carrots, broccoli and even Spam. To him it was breakfast, lunch and dinner. He claimed it was an old Maritime delicacy. He gave me a bowl and I must say it was quite tasty though I admit I was reluctant before the first spoonful. His berth seemed to be refreshed at least yearly and there was a built-in table and bench with a ton of charts and “Stuff” piled all over it The Head was faced with the finest Italian marble and Kohler fixtures. – “No, it wasn’t!”- It was ancient with a broken bowl. To flush you poured salt water from a 5 gal. bucket of salt water into the bowl. I didn’t ask where it went. Though Mary E. was abysmally neglected below, she was well cared for topside.
As I got to know Capt. Charles, I sensed there was more to him than his nautical surface. After a few visits he began to open up. He told me he bought Mary E. in 1971. She had a fine pedigree having been built in Bath, Maine, in 1906 by Thomas E. Hagen. After a lifetime of boat building, Mary E., a two mastered schooner, was to be Hagen’s last. Today the Giant Bath Iron Works stand where his shipyard was. Mary E.‘s first owners where four men from Block Island who operated her as a fishing vessel for 38 years. She also was licensed to carry freight, mail, passengers and her share of illegal rum. They installed a small gas auxiliary engine. In 1944 she was sold to Edward Gleason of Glouster who fitted her with a larger diesel engine and used her as a fishing dragger on the Grand Banks. He abandoned her in 1960 and she sank during the 1963 Thanksgiving hurricane in Lynn, Mass. This was her first sinking. Pictures show her mostly submerged with only one mast. Sometime in her first 57 years someone removed the other mast. She laid in that muck for three years.
Then came an Angel named William R. Donnell ll, whose great, great, grandfather had been a ship builder and friend of Thomas E. Hagen. He rescued Mary E. and brought her back to her birthplace at Bath. A two-year restoration began and when complete she paved the way for the restoring of Maine’s entire Windjammer Fleet.
In 1971, she was sold twice, ending in the hands of a Captain Charles. He sailed her from Booth Bay the New York’s South Street Seaport, when it was in its infancy. He gave harbor tours and worked her as a passenger vessel. He sailed her down to Key West every winter. It was the life he chose and reveled in for 35 years. My wife Linda and I enjoyed sailing with him. One evening he told us he was a former Jazz Musician. At first, I doubted him, but my investigative nature eventually confirmed his story to a greater degree than I had ever imagined.

Captain Charles was indeed a VERY famous Jazz musician, producer, arranger, and composer who played piano, vibraphone and drums. He was born in 1928 and recorded for nine record labels including Columbia and Atlantic. He had studied at Julliard, recorded 18 of his own albums, and played in concert and on albums by Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Aretha Franklin and John Coltrane and many more. From the early 50s through 1970 he built up a musical resume of reviews that heralded him as a master Jazz innovator and the “Golden Standard for modern Jazz Musicians”. He also worked with Dion, Paul Simon, Bobby Vinton and produced many classic jazz albums. And then came the 1970s and “Poof” he disappeared. His love had become the Mary E. She became his life for 36 years. He finally sold the Mary E. in 2007 and bought a small place in Riverhead L. I. but continued giving estuary tours on his smaller sailboat, the historic Skipjack, Pilgrim. Captain Teddy Charles, Born Theodore Cohen left both a musical and sailing heritage few would imagine. He was a humble and talented man.
After Captain Charles sold her, she was abandoned, partially sunk in Hempstead Harbor until rescued and restored by Matt Cohen and Captain Eric Van Dormolen with the help of Greenport Maritime Museum. Then the “Connecticut River Museum engaged the owners to run River cruises from the museum dock. Eventually she was moved to her birthplace of Bath, Maine, to be totally overhauled in the Historic Percy and Small shipyard. It took two years and was relaunched in the Kennebec port in 2018. Of late her home has been the Bath Maritime Museum giving tours of the Kennebunk River.
But this is not the end of our story of the Mary E. On Friday July 30, 2021, my cell rang with my friend’s Scott and Peg on the phone. The evening before with six other friends, booked passage on the Mary E. for the afternoon cruise. It was a beautiful day, and with a few other passengers, were having a great time watching the scenery and indulging in drinks of choice (Scott’s is chilled Yoo-hoo with a cherry in a martini glass) From what he remembers they were making great time and the vessel was keeled to port with some water breaking over the rail. This is not unusual when wind and speed are involved. For an instant it was exhilarating until she heeled over became more extreme with recovery in doubt. Suddenly Scott, who was braced on the higher starboard side, slid down the deck as his wife slid down into the river. The Mary E. went belly up and 15 passengers and three crew struggled to safety. Everyone made it out. The crew dispensed life jackets and rafts immediately, thinking of passengers before themselves – as it should be. Rescue boats were quickly on the scene. No one was badly injured, but most were very cold and wet. A little thanks to the heavens that noone was hurt.
How did she flip over like that? Did her ballast shift, was she taking on water and when the heavy wind hit did it slop to the port side, and its weight prevent recovery or was the hull suddenly staved by a log or tree. There will be a proper investigation. Lessons will be learned and Mary E. will be restored and safer. Mary E. will be restored and made safer. And Mary E. she will sail on.
After Covid I plan to go up and book passage with not an ounce of anxiety. Perhaps a young film maker may document her history one day.The accompanying music should naturally be by “Teddy Charles”, AKA, Captain Charles, born Theodore Cohen 1928-2012, now accompanying, Gabriel and his horn in the clouds.

c. 2021 by Mark C. Nuccio, All rights reserved
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