By Zach Campbell
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
RED HOOK — “She’s a local boat,” said Carolina Salguero, referring to the 171-foot, 613-gross-ton retired tanker that her organization manages, the Mary A. Whalen.
Built in 1938 for Ira S. Bushey Shipyard, a now-defunct Red Hook shipyard and fuel terminal at the southern end of Court Street, the Mary A. Whalen worked for most of the 20th century delivering fuel in and around the ports of New York and other coastal cities from Maine to Maryland. It has also served, since being decommissioned in 1994 and returning to Erie Basin, as an office and dock, a mariner training area, a museum, and as a stage and opera house.
The former oil tanker, temporarily berthed at the Red Hook Container Port, is now being maintained as a historic ship. It has been home to a host of different tours and cultural events, including literary readings, concerts, and a performance of Puccini’s opera Il Tabarro. Salguero, founder and director of PortSide New York, the organization that manages the Mary A. Whalen, hopes to turn the tanker into a museum and cultural center dealing with environmental issues.
“New York is the largest petroleum through-port in the U.S. It’s fuel from here that goes everywhere else in the country and she [the Mary A. Whalen] was part of that,” Salguero said. “Because of her history, she’s a great tool for talking about energy and sustainability issues, and so people can understand our fuel systems from the ’50s to now.”
To make use of the ship's cultural potential, Salguero says, a new home must be found for it. New restrictions have recently been put in place by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and now visitors cannot access the boat, entering through the container port, without either having federal clearance or being escorted by a PortSide employee. This has drastically affected the Mary A. Whalen’s key source of funding — its programming and events.
A meeting was held Monday night at a space in Long Island College Hospital to brainstorm a solution for the Mary A. Whalen’s location and funding problems. Many in the New York maritime community expressed their appreciation for the ship and their willingness to help keep it in Brooklyn.
“The feeling in the room was, ‘Yes, we’d love to have you in Brooklyn,’” Salguero recounted, adding that some community members have come forward with offers to help raise funds.
“She is a unique boat, even among historic ships in the world,” Roland Lewis, president of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, a New York maritime advocacy group. “Being on a ship like her give you a completely different sense of what New York’s maritime history was and is.”
Lewis went on to explain the difficulties involved in finding an adequate location for a historic ship, given how each potential spot can be managed by a different group or agency.
“It’s difficult for historic ships to find adequate long-term berth that is accessible and has the appropriate infrastructure,” said Mary Hibstritt, president of the Society of Industrial Archaeology, who manages a decommissioned steam-powered Coast Guard ship from 1933, the Lilac, that is berthed at the Hudson River’s Pier 25. Hibstritt added that finding adequate space usually involves going through various government and community groups, with a lengthy application process.
PortSide needs to secure a new spot for the Mary A. Whalen by the end of April. Otherwise, the ship will likely be scrapped.
Still, many have hope for the Mary A. Whalen. Jonathan Atkin, a maritime photographer and licensed ship captain who has spent his life and career on the water, described PortSide’s programming as very innovative and the Mary A. Whalen as impressive.
“In 2010, I had the privilege as a charter boat captain to bring numerous passengers into Red Hook, up close and personal, into the Atlantic Basin and point out the amazing historic tanker Mary A. Whalen,” Atkin recounted. “The realization by passengers that such a vessel actually existed was extraordinary.”
Roland Lewis later added that he hopes the Mary A. Whalen and PortSide New York find a Brooklyn home that is more accessible and available to the public.
“She is an absolutely important cultural artifact, and could act as a living museum that would show people the water,” he said.
“It’s about connection to the water.”