As the Director of Watercraft Programs at Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Connecticut, Shannon McKenzie is responsible for the operating vessels at the Museum including schooner Brilliant, the boathouse livery fleet, and the launches. She also manages annual events at Mystic Seaport such as The WoodenBoat Show and the Antique & Classic Boat Rendezvous. She is a licensed captain with a 500-ton offshore ticket and many years of experience in the traditional sailing community.
© Alina Bulazel/Mystic Seaport
“The first time I ever went sailing was when I was in college,” recalls Shannon, who lives in Mystic. “I was a Science major studying marine science at Colgate, and had never been on a boat. I stepped on board S/V Westward at the dock in Woods Hole as I was doing a semester abroad program with Sea Education Association (SEA) and I remember the feeling that I was finally at home, and had all the things that were a part of me were there on Westward.”
“That six-week trip from Woods Hole to the Caribbean changed my life. I went from having never been a boater to working aboard large, traditional sailing vessels after college, and I eventually ended back at SEA. I worked there as a mate on the boats and then continued to work in their office as the Marine Operations Coordinator, doing crew and port logistics and related tasks.”
Shannon and her husband relocated to Connecticut about nine years ago when he took a faculty position at the University of Connecticut. She was able to secure a position in the Watercraft Department at Mystic Seaport. “It was a natural fit to start working at the Museum,” she says. “I like that there is a lot of variability in what I do every day. I get to see many schooners and large vessels come in and tie up at our marina, which means I get to see friends I’ve sailed with and then watch them come in and experience everything we have to offer at the Museum. I get to work on all of the different events we orchestrate, and of course I get to work with so many great people.”
If she had to pick, what vessel in the Museum’s collection means the most to Shannon? “Of course, I love schooner Brilliant!” she enthuses. “I get to go out sailing on her on occasion. She’s a fast, lovely boat with a wonderful captain in Nicholas Alley, and we have a great program for teens and adults. Brilliant has been constantly maintained to such a high standard. She’s never undergone a major refit of any type, and the vast number of people who have been out on the boat has created a community that holds her in their hearts.”
“I was involved in the 38th Voyage of the Charles W. Morgan. I did a lot of the logistics for the ports, the crew hiring, the calendar planning, and a lot of the behind-the-scenes preparation work. I worked on that for a number of years leading up to the voyage in 2014. I think that Mystic Seaport has a longstanding tradition of restoring our vessels and then taking them sailing. We did that with the Emma C. Berry in 1992, the 1880 sandbagger Annie, the Morgan, and our Eastern-rig dragger RoAnn, which has been to Menemsha and Cape May for festivals in just the last year. Hopefully, we will be able to continue that as we continue to restore our landmark vessels.”
“I got to sail on one of the Morgan’s day trips out of New London. The most meaningful thing to me was when the ship first sailed off the dock on her first sea trial. I was standing on the pier and the crew set sails and cast off the dock lines, and the ship got underway under sail alone. That was really powerful to witness after all of the restoration work, and the time and energy, focus – and care – that everyone involved with the project had put in. It was a joy to see her get underway under sail.”
In addition to her work at Mystic Seaport, Shannon also enjoys boating with her family. “Our present boat is an Eastern 19, a center console motorboat that is perfect for operating up and down the Mystic River in the evenings with my family, including our young son who has informed me that he prefers motorboats over sailboats. He told me, ‘Even though you love sailboats, Momma, does not mean that I do,’” she laughs.
“A favorite place that I like to sail, even though the sailing is not that great, is Southeastern Alaska. The vistas are just so majestic, the wildlife is amazing and the icebergs are everywhere. It is unlike anything I have ever seen. Sailing in the Caribbean or the South Pacific is great, but those northern latitudes of Alaska or Newfoundland are the most beautiful to me.”
“I have had some phenomenal days of sailing in my life,” says Shannon. “One of my really strong memories that I always carry with me is when I was working on a fast schooner that operated out of the West Coast. She was a low-slung boat with no deckhouses and it was Thanksgiving Day, so all of the crew and all of the students were down below eating turkey dinner. I was the mate on watch and we were sailing between a couple of the Channel Islands off California on a beam reach just ‘schooning’ through the area, and it was just perfect.”