For 20 years, Roger Flaherty worked in the galley on Great Lakes freighters as a member of the Seafarers International Union. It was a career he enjoyed with a union that treated him fairly.
Now 77, he stopped working about 15 years ago after suffering a stroke and heart attack. It was earlier than he expected, leaving him with a pension that was too small to cover his needs in retirement.
“I would have worked longer if I hadn’t gotten sick,” he told Professional Mariner recently.
The Trustees of the Sailors’ Snug Harbor in the City of New York stepped in to help. Flaherty is one of almost 400 retired seafarers who received financial support last year from the 222-year-old charity. These days, the organization is looking for other mariners like him who need a hand in their golden years.
“We help mariners where they live, in 33 states and Puerto Rico,” said Jay Brooks, the organization’s executive director. “We help them mostly with housing costs — rent or a mortgage — and with utilities so they can live more comfortably in retirement.”
The nonprofit Sailors’ Snug Harbor is bound by federal requirements to spend a certain amount of its trust every year. Although the organization supported close to 400 people in 2022, about 10 percent of those recipients pass away every year.
“We have never had a wait list in recent history,” Brooks said. “Because the economy is not so great, we can’t do a huge influx of new folks each year. But we are always looking for mariners to help.”
Sailors’ Snug Harbor was established following the death of Capt. Robert Richard Randall on June 5, 1801. His will, reportedly drafted by Alexander Hamilton, stipulated that his estate be used to create “an asylum, or marine hospital to maintain and to support aged, decrepit and worn-out sailors.”
Randall’s 21-acre property covered almost 10 square blocks in what is now Greenwich Village in New York City, on land that would later become some of the most valuable in the world. Those real estate holdings, which have changed hands over the years, helped facilitate the trust’s mission to support retired mariners.
The trustees ultimately bought a 130-acre farm on Staten Island to support Randall’s wishes. Five dorm-style buildings opened at the site in 1833 with housing for up to 200 retired mariners. The site ultimately grew to 55 buildings, and by 1900 there were 1,000 people living there. Some 7,000 mariners are buried in the property’s 6-acre cemetery.
The organization later moved its retirement facilities to North Carolina, which it sold in 2005 as part of a strategic decision to support mariners living in their own homes, Brooks said.
Since its inception, the group has assisted more than 17,500 sailors. And nobody was every turned away due to their “race, creed or color.”
Mariners must meet certain criteria to qualify for financial support from the organization. Generally speaking, mariners must have at least 2,555 verified days on the water aboard either deep sea or inland vessels. That translates to about 14 years of service. They also must be at least 60 years old, or disabled and unable to work. They must have less than $75,000 in assets, not including their primary residence or their vehicle, and they must be a U.S. citizen. Other stipulations also apply.
Support goes to the vendor directly, such as a utility company, rather than to the mariners themselves.
The nonprofit has been supported through the years from proceeds from its Manhattan real estate holdings, according to Brooks, who joined the organization about 17 years ago. Previously, he worked for the United Seamen’s Service, which runs clubs overseas, and the Seamen’s Church Institute.
“We try to be prudent in our spending. Capt. Randall’s wishes were to exist in perpetuity. He had a lot of strong directions, and one was (for the organization) to stay intact forever,” Brooks said.
Flaherty was born in Detroit and sailed for 3,345 days. He now lives in Clearwater, Fla. He has received assistance from the trust for about a decade. The money primarily helps with housing, utilities and transportation to and from medical appointments. The trust also sends an additional sum during the holidays.
“They are just a wonderful organization, and Mr. Brooks does a fantastic job with the sailors,” Flaherty said. “He is just a wonderful, wonderful man. The whole organization, they go out of their way to help us.”
The money fills a critical need for Flaherty. Without it, he said, he’d barely be getting by “if I got by at all.”
For more information on The Trustees of the Sailors’ Snug Harbor in the City of New York and its programs supporting retired mariners, visit thesailorssnugharbor.org •