By Don Church and Tony Schillaci
At the bottom of Main Street in the elegant and quaint village of Essex, Connecticut, a handsome river-front colonial building houses the interactive Connecticut River Museum. Moored on the museum’s dock is the glorious 106-year-old schooner, the Mary E.
Every day except Wednesday, Captain John Bosco and able seamen Bill and Will crew the Mary E and take up to 25 passengers on several delightful and educational hour-and-a-half sailings on the uncrowded Connecticut River. Captain Bosco uses his diesel engine just to leave the mooring, and then, wind permitting, Will and Bill hoist the sails and the quiet of a natural cruise begins.
Throughout the journey, the men answer questions about the ship, the river and the riverbanks, and will offer as much or as little information as the passengers request.
Helping to recreate the pristine experience of sailing, the seamen use no strident PA systems to inform the passengers about the river. The size of the ship makes it unnecessary to amplify natural speech when talking about the Mary E.
Built in Bath, Maine in 1906, and sometimes used as a mail boat, the wooden schooner had no engine until the 1950’s. The ship was used for a variety of such purposes as a fishing trawler and other commercial uses; the sails were unfortunately removed after it was motorized.
It later sunk in Massachusetts and after being discovered with its bow sticking out of the river by the great-grandson of the original owner, it was towed back to Maine, restored, and during the 60’s and 70’s was once again used as a schooner.
Jazzman Teddy Charles from City Island, NY bought it in the 70’s, refitted it as a sailing schooner and for 30 years sailed the Mary E out of Greenport, Long Island.
After five or six years of extensive renovations the two-mast ship, which is of basically Dutch design but considered quintessentially American, has been partnered with the museum and has been sailing from Essex during the spring, summer and fall.
The schooner design has the mainsail in the back, and the standing rigging on the Mary E is just four years old. The river on which she sails is mainly salt water in the Essex region, becoming fresh farther north.
But knowing the long and colorful history of the Mary E is only half the fun. The most pleasurable 90 minutes is actually being aboard the historic vessel, hearing the sails whipping in the wind, bundling up or letting the sun and salt refresh your skin – and listening to the peacefully quiet experience that power-boaters cannot know.
As the ship nears the Baldwin Bridge, beyond which lies Long Island Sound, the captain tells the passengers that volunteers can assist the crew in lowering the sails as the Mary E turns and heads back to port. Will and Bill let passengers know that the river has been enjoying a rejuvenation because of ecologically sound practices, and that everyone who uses the Connecticut River, on the water and on its banks, has the responsibility to keep it clean. It’s one of the few major rivers in the country that doesn’t have a city at its mouth.
Sailing on this well-tended and lovingly restored ship along the Great River, as it was called by the Native Americans and the early settlers, through some of the most beautiful unspoiled scenery in the country is truly an experience that no one should miss when visiting Connecticut.
The Mary E leaves the Connecticut River Museum at 1:30 p.m. and at 3:30 p.m. There is also a two-hour sunset cruise departing at 6 p.m. For the sunset sail, passengers are encouraged to take along a picnic supper.
The museum and the Mary E go together like the horse and buggy; a time-travel experience back to the days when schooners were the tractor-trailers of their day and steamboats were the major people movers for tourists and business people. The museum offers interactive
displays, such as the Turtle, a replica of the world’s first submarine used in the Revolutionary War and other eye-popping exhibits that appeal to all ages. The Mary E also takes group tours and charters, which can be part of a total package which includes admission to the outstanding museum.
The Connecticut River Museum and a sail on a magnificent schooner is a great way to reduce stress and go with the peaceful flow of the tide this summer and fall. The first-rate captain and crew will delight you with stories about the river’s history.
If you go:
Where: Connecticut River Museum at the end of Main Street in historic Essex Village
What: A visit to the museum and a 90 minute sail on the schooner Mary E
When: Daily except Wednesday for public cruises, Museum open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
How: Call (860) 767-8269, or visit www.ctrivermuseum.orgfor reservations.
River excursion and museum visit tickets are $26 adults, $16 children under 12
Sunset cruise $30 per person all ages. Groups and charter prices upon request.