Retired tanker at the center of ambitious plans for N.Y. waterfront attraction

The vintage refueling vessel Mary A. Whalen is playing the starring role in an effort to create a maritime center that would serve present-day professional mariners and the general public.

Built in 1938, Whalen ceased operation in 1994. Still afloat today, the ship is tied up at Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Red Hook Container Terminal. While the 172-foot ship may be a symbol of a bygone era, a group called PortSide New York plans to use it as the centerpiece of a wide-ranging waterfront attraction at the Red Hook docks. The group already uses Whalen for cultural events and hopes the old tanker will be the focal point for other historical, educational and artistic presentations. The Brooklyn project, however, also intends to serve the working mariner. PortSide plans a maritime education center, where would-be and current professional mariners could take U.S. Coast Guard-approved courses and obtain career counseling. The organizers hope their pier will become a landing for ferries and tour boats. They want to offer a so-called “Truckstop for Workboats” that would allow tugs to tie up while mariners take a break, walk around and resupply their galleys. Several Whalen alumni have signed up as volunteers, attracted by the idea of refurbishing the old tanker and serving future mariners. One volunteer is Rich Naruszewicz, who served as an AB tankerman on the vessel from 1992 to 1994.

For decades, Whalen operated throughout the harbor, from Stuyvesant Terminal at 138th Street to Newtown Creek to the Gowanus Canal to the bay anchorages.
Whenever oil tanker captain Naruszewicz visits Whalen, he fondly recalls his years sailing the distinctive old “bell boat” around New York Harbor. “She was a one-of-a-kind boat — a lot of memories,” Naruszewicz said. “We use to do anything and everything in the harbor that would take black oil: cruise ships, containerships, bulkers, freighters, terminal-to-terminal.”
Mary A. Whalen began life as S.T. Kiddoo. The vessel, built at the Mathis shipyard in Camden, N.J., specialized in transporting gasoline and heating oil along the Atlantic Coast between Maine and Maryland. In its last years, Whalen stayed around New York Harbor, delivering locally for Eklof Marine. Naruszewicz, 53, now works as a captain aboard large tankers. As he reminisced on Whalen‘s decks, he marveled at how the industry has advanced in less than two decades. Whalen was — and still is — equipped with a 450-hp, 300-rpm Fairbanks Morse 37E12, a six-cylinder, direct-reversing engine. The vessel is called a “bell boat” because the captain in the wheelhouse used conventional bell clangs to instruct the crewmen below how to run the vessel. After a bell signaled that a change of instructions was imminent, the engineer would hear different combinations of clangs to indicate slow ahead, half ahead, three-quarters, full ahead or astern. “Every maneuver was a challenge because you had to slow down, stop and wait for the response of the engine,” Naruszewicz said. “The assistant engineer would be sitting here with a cigar or a cigarette in his mouth, and when he heard the command, he would come up to this engine telegraph, and he would stop (the engine) and then he would put it astern.” Another former Whalen crewman, Gulmar Parga, recalls learning many aspects of ship operations and seafaring life aboard the tanker in the 1990s, when he was starting out in the business. Now Parga, 43, serves as an engineer aboard New York City fireboats. “You had to be a pretty good captain, because there’s no throttle up there. There’s only the bells,” Parga said. “It was pretty crazy doing those K-turn maneuvers up on the Gowanus Canal.” While touring the engine room recently, Parga had a laugh when he noticed one of the old pumps. “This was the bilge pump and the firefighting pump,” he said. “Back in the day, you’d be pumping out water on the fire, but you’d get oil for a second or two before you’d get seawater.” Carolina Salguero, PortSide’s executive director, said tours of Mary A. Whalen could ultimately nurture a deeper appreciation of the industry.
“The motive is industrial advocacy and the desire to have better waterfront planning, in ways that are accessible and interesting to the general public,” Salguero said. “What we discovered is that she is an amazing teaching tool, because she seduces people.”
Another friend of PortSide is Heidi Benedikt, an AB tankerperson aboard Whalen in 1987-88. It was only the second vessel on which Benedikt worked. She had not exactly received a warm welcome on the previous boat. “The first job I went on, (the crew) were trying to scare me. They said I had to hook up the hoses and load the boat all by myself,” she said. “They said, ‘Now we’re going to show you where you’re going to sleep’ — and they brought out a folding chair.” Thankfully, they were just kidding about the chair. The atmosphere aboard Whalen, however, was quite different. Benedikt was greeted by a nice group of guys, a spacious galley with super grub and a very comfortable bunk. “This boat was great. I thought I moved into a palace,” she said. “I was so scared to live with the same people for seven days, but I liked the crew. I have a lot of fond memories on this boat.” Occasionally, the men hazed the vessel’s only woman. Benedikt would find girlie magazines in her locker, for example. No problem. She traded the magazines to ships’ crews during refueling jobs. In exchange, she would receive fresh pineapples and bananas or a bottle of vodka. Later her crewmates would wonder where their magazines had gone. Naruszewicz recalls how noisy the boat was.
“You got very little sleep aboard this vessel. Your rooms were right here above the engine, and you had the bells, and when the boat would go astern, it would go ‘Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!'” he said. The noise didn’t bother Benedikt. When she wasn’t on watch, she practiced playing harmonica. The constant racket from the engine and bells guaranteed that no one else was disturbed. “Now I feel really old that a boat that I worked on is a museum boat!” she said.
Both Benedikt and Naruszewicz have vivid memories of tying the boat up to a bulkhead next to a supermarket along the Gowanus Canal. They usually tied up to a tree or to a tractor-trailer that made the grocery deliveries. Once, their makeshift mooring arrangement didn’t end well.

“We tied the stern line on the back bumper of a car,” Naruszewicz said. “When we came out of the store, the bumper was still in the parking space, but the car was gone!”
Resupplying a round-the-clock tugboat is a challenge for some operators, he noted.

“We do need a ‘Truckstop for Workboats,'” he said. “The problem is, in between jobs, how do you get grub? You have to find a dock where you can get off the boat and get into a taxi and go to the supermarket somewhere. But some terminals don’t allow you to get off the boat, and they don’t want you to walk through, and they don’t want taxis going through.”

The proposed Marine Career Center classroom would house Coast Guard-approved courses and career counseling for new and experienced mariners. Young people could learn about maritime career opportunities.

It’s fitting that Mary A. Whalen lives on and may beckon new mariners into the industry, Benedikt and Parga said. Many got their start on the omnipresent tanker.
“Without the experience and what I learned on this boat, I would not be where I am now,” Parga said. PortSide already hosts occasional tours of Whalen, and the organization plans more community outreach. “When I try to explain what it’s like (to be a mariner) and how you live and what people do on the boat, just to be able to walk on it, to be physically out on the boat and touch things, is priceless in terms of education,” Benedikt said. One volunteer, John Weaver, is the son-in-law of Capt. Alf Dyrland, Whalen‘s master from 1958 to 1978.
“We have all these (Dyrland) notes, which were written in a very fine hand,” he said. “The navigation notes were folded up to about the size of a calling card, with all the navigation problems up and down the river — where there was a sunken tugboat, a barge that went down, places where there were rocks that you could only see at extreme low tide.”
Although Mary A. Whalen sailed only along the East Coast, its name is familiar to mariners nationally. That’s because a maritime casualty involving Whalen led to the 1975 U.S. Supreme Court case establishing the ability of courts to divide damages based on degree of fault. On a night when Dyrland was away on leave, Whalen ran aground during a maneuver to avoid another vessel off Rockaway Point, N.Y. The Coast Guard-maintained breakwater light was out. The Supreme Court turned aside the precedents of “divided damages” and “presumption of causation” and instead adopted the concept that U.S. courts can allocate damage to parties “proportionately to the comparative degree of their fault.” The PortSide participants hope their project will be a tool for public advocacy for working mariners, whose interests are under-represented in city planning, Salguero said. The New York City Economic Development Corp. (EDC) is negotiating a lease with PortSide. The EDC is itself a tenant of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which will review the sublease. Thereafter, PortSide intends to raise funds from private foundations, industry donations and government sources.
Maritime operators that have contributed services or advice to PortSide include Hughes Marine, K-SEA Transportation, Reinauer Transportation and Weeks Marine. American Stevedoring Inc. has provided the dock space, electricity and labor.
“We’re trying to make the public aware and to make it a maritime hub and teach people how the waterfront works,” Naruszewicz said. Finally, there’s the dream that Whalen could sail again. PortSide is actively seeking parts for the old engine. Marine engineers say it needs five connecting rods for the Fairbanks Morse engine, a davit and expertise in crank repair.

“Nothing but good things can come from this old boat. It’s a good steel hull, and the water’s still staying on the outside,” Parga said. 

By Professional Mariner Staff