Red Hook

Ship ahoy! The Mary A. Whalen finds a new berth in Red Hook

Eye On Real Estate

August 19, 2015 By Lore Croghan Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The Mary A. Whalen, a decommissioned oil tanker, now has a long-term berth at Pier 11 in Red Hook. Eagle photos by Lore Croghan

Ship ahoy!

A museum and floating cultural center that’s dear to the hearts of water-loving Brooklynites has found a desperately needed home on the Red Hook shoreline.

The Mary A. Whalen has a new berth at Pier 11 in Atlantic Basin, next to the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal.

The 1930s-vintage decommissioned oil tanker belongs to PortSide New York, a 501(c)3 nonprofit.

The dock is accessible to the public from Red Hook’s Pioneer Street. Public access is crucial for a ship that offers on-board tours, concerts and sing-alongs, educational programs and job training and hosts visiting vessels.

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For the longest time, the ship — which is the world’s only oil tanker cultural center — was exiled to the Red Hook Container Terminal. Due to U.S. Department of Homeland Security regulations, visitors were verboten unless a PortSide New York employee picked them up a quarter-mile from the Mary A. Whalen and escorted them aboard.

On May 29, a Vane Brothers tugboat towed the Mary A. Whalen to its new berth.

“May 29th was like being let out of jail,” Carolina Salguero, a Yale-educated journalist turned museum director/waterfront advocate/maritime preservationist, told Eye on Real Estate during a recent visit to the intriguing ship.

“Every day at our new berth is like Christmas with some positive development, offer or new partner coming up our gangway,” she said.

Salguero’s story resonates with real estate-obsessed Brooklynites.

The search for a berth for a historic ship can be as fraught with angst as the hunt for a rented office or apartment. Securing a permit for a berth can be as complicated as lease negotiations for locations on dry land.

It took Salguero, who is PortSide’s founder and director, a decade to find a suitable location for the Mary A. Whalen. Obtaining a three-year permit for its new Pier 11 berth involved five-way talks with PortSide New York and the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, the city Economic Development Corp., BillyBey Marina Services and DockNYC.

City Councilmember Carlos Menchaca (D-Red Hook and Sunset Park) helped PortSide New York’s cause by including in a letter of intent about the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal a stipulation that the Mary A. Whalen should get a Pier 11 berth.

“Carlos Menchaca was a game-changer,” she said.

Having a long-term, publicly accessible dock for the ship is “completely transformative,” Salguero said. “We can now grow. It was a hard sell before.”  

 

A Cat Named Chiclet Charms the Neighborhood

The Mary A. Whalen, which delivered fuel along the Northeast coast from 1938 to 1994, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The ship’s engine doesn’t work. But numerous original or decades-old features of the nostalgia-inducing vessel are intact, such as bells the captain used for communicating with an engineer below deck who controlled the ship’s throttle.

Now that the Mary A. Whalen is visible to passersby, some Red Hook residents have told Salguero that their kids notice — and are charmed by — a black cat named Chiclet that lives on the ship.

Salguero bought the old tanker for PortSide New York for $16,500 in 2006. The organization won a 2013 White House Champions of Change award for its recovery work after Hurricane Sandy.

Long Live the BLUEspace

PortSide Open Weekend, held Aug. 7-9, drew 465 visitors to the Mary A. Whalen for tours, music and an on-deck potluck dinner. And there’s much more to come in the ship’s renewed engagement with the public.

Salguero made a list of programs that are in the works. Here are excerpts:

* Red Hook WaterStories “will cover 400-plus years of water-themed history and turn the peninsula of Red Hook into an educational site, with physical and digital markers connecting current and historical stories to entertain and educate people about New York’s waterways and this community that has grown around it,” she wrote.

PortSide has been collecting content for years.

* PortSide plans to launch an African American Maritime Heritage program.

* It will seek corporate sponsors to make TankerTime — when the public is allowed to while away the hours on the Mary A. Whalen — a regular Sunday event. It will seek funding for TankerTours timed to dovetail with Second Sunday programs held at neighboring arts partner Pioneer Works.

* PortSide will expand its education programs, with Red Hook’s Public School 15 as its first priority, now that the ship is going to be accessible during the school year.

* In September, District Council 9 will resume job training in skilled painting and metal polishing aboard the Mary A. Whalen, which furthers shippreservation efforts. PortSide also plans to continue preservation-focused programs with Williamsburg High School of Architecture & Design.  

* PortSide will continue to bring other historic ships besides the Mary A. Whalen to Brooklyn through its visiting vessels program.

“We are in very preliminary discussions with the Liberty Ship John W. Brown, which was a floating high school in New York City for decades and left New York City in the early 1980s,” wrote Salguero, who has proposed that Sunset Park’s Brooklyn Army Terminal Pier 4 be the venue where the ship would stay.

* PortSide will finalize an application for post-Superstorm Sandy funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for an on-board generator to improve ship resiliency.

* PortSide will continue to advocate for “a more ship-friendly New York City,” wrote Salguero. PortSide refers to the city waterfront’s actual waters, which are its advocacy focus, as BLUEspace.

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