July 4, 2022

The Captain of the Mary E isn’t Just a Captain

Captain Matt Culen with one hand on the throttle, one on the wheel, and an eagle eye for what’s ahead

This isn’t just a story about the Mary E. It could be. She is deserving. So deserving that many stories have been done about her.

She is known to us hereabouts as the romantic, beautiful old schooner that ties up at the Connecticut River Museum in the summer and gives boat lovers two-hour excursion rides up and down the river.

She’s more than a hundred years old. She’s been the Mary E all those years though she’s had many different jobs and assignments.The live Mary E must have been quite a lady to the man who put her name on  the ship. When she comes here, she’s certainly the largest sailing vessel.

To me she’s the most beautiful thing floating in the harbor.  I think of everything else out there as a boat, some extremely pricey. But I think of the Mary E as a ship. There’s a difference.

She was launched as a work boat, not a rich man’s plaything. And she was built long before that wonderful but character-less plexiglass came along. Meaning built of good, proud New England wood.

Lots of folks feel they have to come and take a close look at her. Seniors like me. Couples with young kids. Dating couples holding hands. Having her at the dock is a big asset to the museum, I believe.

But really this story is about Matt Curlen. He’s the owner of the Mary E and her relief captain—he drives up from Pelham, N.Y,, to take over when the regular captain is off.

I went out on her last summer. My first time.

I love sailboats. I was a small-boat sailor for years. Owned several. My biggest was my 16-foot  O’Day sloop. Many fine times in it, mostly on lakes and harbors and bays. Never ventured far out.  I get seasick just at the sight of a big wave.

My longest was my 18-foot Grumman canoe. I liked paddling as much as I did sailing. I went paddling whenever I could.  But I had a sailing kit for it, too.  Which is quite rare. A  mast and sail and Dutch-style lee-boards and a rudder with a rope tiller. Wonderful. But strictly for lakes. Not salt water. Great fun.

Before long I realized she’d be good to row, too. So I put on oars. Then added rear view  mirrors on the left and right sides. Rowing can be hazardous. It’s hard to see where you’re going. I loved my mirrors. And I was right—my canoe was great fun to row. We lived near Lake Singletary up in Massachusetts. After work I’d row my Grumman all around the lake. My rear-view mirrors drew lots of attention.

But such  pleasures are no longer possible. That’s why I bought a ticket on the Mary E that day last summer. It was the next best thing for me.

I took a seat at the very stern. I wanted to be close to the skipper. Sail with him vicariously, so to speak.

Matt Culen was the skipper that day. I didn’t know his name. Didn’t know a thing about him.  He turned out to be a lean, pleasant, and totally focused guy. Really knew his stuff. Well, the passengers were on board and he and his crew of two were getting ready to hoist sail. Suddenly he noticed something wrong at the top of the taller mast. That mast is 45-feet high.

Faster than I can write this sentence, he skipped over to one of the ratlines— the rope ladders— and  scampered right up to the top. Like a monkey. Wow! He fiddled up there for two minutes, solved the problem, and scampered down. Then came back to the wheel, ordered sail up, and off we went.

But there’s more to my story. As I had hoped, I was able to chat with him.  Not a real chat because he was so busy. Sailing a big old-timer like this is a challenge. Checking the current and the tide. Calculating the best route to give the best ride with the sails up and get back at the right time. And giving orders to pull in this sail or let out that one—the Mary E can carry up to six sails.

On and on. I’m curious and ask questions. Can’t help myself. He did his best to satisfy me. It turns out the Mary E is not his day job.  His day job is also water-related, but so different.

Matt is a civil engineer, in fact, a P.E.—a professional engineer. And he has a specialty that makes him him spend time under water.  Yes, under water. Far more time under water than on the water skippering the Mary E. He is a diver. Diving is an essential part of his work.

It’s this contrast of sailing on the water and  then working under water that fascinated me. That’s why I’m writing this.

But all that was last summer. I looked forward to another ride with him. This summer she was late in coming back—a humongous repair problem. So my second ride was this Labor Day. The Mary E’s sail time was 3 p.m. but I came early in hopes of a real good chat. I was lucky. He had the Mary E all set and he had time. We sat in his Jaguar, where it was nice and quiet. And I pried out one detail after another.

He owns a company, Hudson Marine Inc., in Pelham Manor, N.Y. He started it. Its main specialties are Engineering Inspections and Underwater Construction.

He was born in Slovakia. He came to New York City when he was 12.  Lived close to the salt water.  Loved it. Quickly got a part-time job as a dock boy. As he entered his teens, be began thinking of a career in the military. The Navy, in fact.

What he told me next surprised me. For college, he went to the Citadel, a military school in South Carolina. He majored in engineering. There seem to be as many specialties in engineering as there are in medicine, and he opted for civil engineering.   When I think of civil engineering I think of highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and sewer systems and things like that. Never of anything under water.

Then into the Navy where he became a diving and salvage officer. The training was tough. He took to the work. He finished his hitch  and it led to his career. He’s been at it for more than 30 years.

He’s built up Hudson Marine with a crew of seasoned divers like himself. Matt is still an active diver, but now his role is more varied, of course. He’s got the whole business to run.

At one point, I said to him. “You know, professional pilots log their flight hours. A captain for Amerian Airlines might say he has 19,200 hours. You must log your hours diving.”

He nodded. “I used to but I stopped a long time ago. I’d be shocked to learn the total!”

I asked him for typical projects. He suggested  his website, www.hudsonmarineinc.com. He describes many of his jobs there. You may like to look at it.

When he started out, all divers wore the heavy, bulky outfits that have become familiar to us through books and movies. The massive steel helmets, the ballon-like suits, the weighted shoes Diving suits have greatly improved. But they’re still designed for heavy work down there, not just swimming around looking for interesting fish and snapping pictures of them.

Often  the diving is in awful water. Foul. Stinking. With terrible visibility and lots of junk around. Hazardous.

I said to him, “I believe that the Mary E is really your hobby. And your running her on excursions like this as a way to make your hobby help pay for itself.”

He smiled. “Yes, that is so.”

He has owned the Mary E for six years. So how did he become interested in her?

“I went on board for a ride,  and one thing led to another. And she became mine.”

He had sailed boats for fun but the Mary E took out passengers. He wanted to skipper her now and then. The skipper needs a captain’s license. So he took it upon himself to pass the Coast Guard’s certification tests.

Now it was time to go on board. Twenty people had signed up. He was pleased. His crew had arrived. The first was Devon Ford of Westbrook. She’s a friendly young gal just graduated from Boston University with a degree in marine studies. She’s still trying to find her niche and this job had sounded interesting.

The crew: Devon Ford and Tim Visel. Interesting in their own way

Matt introduced her as “my second mate.” He said it with a big smile. She seemed surprised to hear that. And pleased.

The fist mate did come along, gray-haired, in work clothes, with an air of know-how and assurance. “Tim Visel,” he said, extending his hand to me.

They helped the tourists aboard. Older people mostly. Many with cameras in hand. All obviously looking forward to a nice ride on the water on Labor Day. The day most of us think of as the end of summer. Vacations are over mostly, Schools have re-opened. Everybody’s getting serious again.

They took seats here and there along the sides. Some insisted on standing. I managed to get my seat at the stern again. Matt began giving orders.

Readying a ship this size and this old is work. This has to be done, and that, and that. His crew got to it. She has an engine, but for propulsion only. Everything else requires muscle.

The captain explains something. Devon finds it funny

The mainsail was hauled up. Matt pushed a button and the engine came alive with a nice purr. The mooring lines were pulled aboard. Matt checked the water for nearby craft. He peered ahead. So many people on board that he had to crane. He turned the wheel a hair  and slowly we left the dock. He had to crane throughout the trip. Lots of water traffic,

I asked and he said yes, this was the busiest day of the year on the river. Boats of all kinds. Mostly motor boats. Of all sizes. All pleasure boats. Work boats on the Connecticut nowadays are a rare sight.  There was a time when pleasure boats were very rare.

What was remarkable to me—and always is—is how few boats are actually moving on the water. There are thousands of recreational boats here. They crowd marinas and boat yards beyond number. But the great majority never seem to go anywhere.

A gorgeous day. Blue sky, nearly cloudless. A good wind—15 miles per hour, he estimated. Perfect, I thought. As always, tide and wind—those were the  key factors.

A great pleasure are all the sights

Matt decided whether he’d head up river or down, and how long he’d have to go in order to return reasonably on time. He headed south, toward the Baldwin Bridge. And we made a long, squished circle, making our way up toward Gillette Castle, then around to get back to the museum dock.

Shortly Tim Visel took a position standing at mid-ship, on the other side. Mot passengers were up there. He began talking. I couldn’t hear him, but I could tell he had lots to say, and he kept people’s attention. He’d be serious, then smile and joke, and point to this and that on the shore and the river.

Second mate Devon came along and I asked her about Tim. “He’s done a lot of commercial fisherman. Has spent a lot of t ime on the water. And he knows so much about local history!” I was sorry I wasn’t closer to him.

As it turned out, we had another crewman on board, Craig Carter. He relieved Matt at the wheel. He was a captain, too, he told me. Just helping a bit.

Matt went midships to talk to the passengers, too. He welcomed them and explainr how a ship like the Mary E makes the most of the wind. Especially sailing against it.

He returned and kept ordering sail adjustments. Kept his eye on a Garmin GPS. That electronic whiz showed him this stretch of the river in detail–its channel markers, landmarks, depth of water under us, wind strength. Indispensable nowadays.

He and Craig would peer at the Garmin and talk. And glance at everything else around.

How did the old-timers manage so well?

There was also a compass nearby, not needed here.

Truly a fine day. The passing boats were fascinating, and the people on board. Many waved at us. The lovely homes along the shore, homes that we never get to see from the road. The beaches and islands. The foliage of endless shades of green and yellow.

Many of the properties are calendar-worthy

A long string of geese appeared  overhead. I followed them until they went out of sight. I spotted three swans, too, far less than usual.

As always, the boaters having the most fun were those in the smaller boats, especially the small sailboats. Well, to my eye.

A lovely catboat skimmed along, gleaming white with s gleaming white sail. Just two women on board, skipper and crew. Moving along so nicely and so expertly. A thing of beauty. I kept my eyes on her.

But for us the wind became a problem. “Very tricky!” Craig told me.  So we used only the mainsail. The other sails never got put up. And the engine was on nearly all the time, but on idle. Just in case, I surmised. Important in a busy waterway like this.

Tim Visel happened to come close. We talked. What a surprise. He was a full professor of things marine and maritime. At the University of Rhode Island and then UConn. Then he had gone back to public education. Told me he had built schools of marine studies. Was now heavily involved with The Sound School in New Haven, part of the city’s public school system.

He dug out one of his business cards. “Sound School Regional Vocational Aquaculture Center. Timothy C. Visel, Coordinator.” It all sounded extraordinary. I tucked it in my pocket.

I asked him, “Why the heck are you doing this today?”

He smiled. “This is my son Will’s job. I’m subbing for him. He needed a day off.”  He went off to help Devon. We were getting close to the dock.

Matt got us back right on time. Tim and Devon helped the passengers  get off.  They looked happy and contented. I lingered. Wanted to have a few more words with Matt. But he was busy. He’d be taking the Mary E out again at 6 p.m.

Finally I got his attention. “I’ll be in touch!” I said. He gave me a wave.

For me it was a perfect thing to do on Labor Day. I was glad the Mary E was around to make this possible. Glad Matt had done all this expensive work to keep her running for years to come.

Captain Matt Culen. One ride finished, one more to go. A totally different life tomorrow

In a minute I glanced back at her. The museum dock would look bare indeed without her come fall.