The sun was setting when we arrived at Pier 11 in Red Hook last week. It glinted off the Statue of Liberty and bathed the Mary A. Whalen in a golden glow. Brightly colored maritime flags flapped over the boat’s deck, where a small crowd—which included schoolchildren, old salts, hip-hop dancers and two blue-and-gold macaws—had congregated to wish the oil tanker a happy 75th.
“We knew that she launched in 1938, but we only recently learned that her birthday was May 21,” said Carolina Salguero, who bought the Mary Whalen for approximately $16,500 in 2006 as a home for her nonprofit PortSide New York. “Maritime historian Norman Brouwer discovered the exact date.”
The Mary Whalen is still a beauty at 75. Years of hauling gas and diesel up and down the Atlantic Coast have weathered her, but weathering becomes a workboat, and the vessel’s bright red 613-gross-ton bulk remains watertight, even if her engine has seen better days.
These last few years have been difficult ones for the old oil tanker, though. Unable to find a permanent, publicly accessible home port, the Mary Whalen has been forced to spend the better part of the past six years cooped up in the Red Hook Container Terminal—isolated, idle and unable to receive visitors. On the occasion of her 75th birthday, the Mary Whalen was granted a four-day reprieve.
We found Ms. Salguero on deck, greeting visitors in a red bandanna and a pink tank top. She even extended her hand—or rather her bare arms—to the macaws, who perched amiably, requesting walnuts and pocking her forearms with their talons.
Ms. Salguero attributes the Mary Whalen’s ongoing homelessness to the city’s “boat-unfriendly pier design and rules.” For example, the permit that allowed the boat’s longest publicly accessible stay in Red Hook, which lasted for a mere 55 days in 2010, was secured only after seven months of hour-and-a-half-long meetings every other Friday. And that was with a maritime lawyer.
In lieu of an accessible dock, the Mary Whalen has become very good at popping up, and she was recently honored for her work during Superstorm Sandy. Ms. Salguero, meanwhile (who has been isolated along with the Mary Whalen as its ship’s keeper), has received an award from the National Maritime Historical Society.
Workboats, Ms. Salguero said, do not ordinarily celebrate their birthdays. Then again, the Mary Whalen is not an ordinary workboat. Beyond her more recent activities, she made waves when she ran aground on the Rockways just before Christmas Eve in 1968 and remained stranded with her crew for several days. That accident earned her national notoriety when the battle over who should pay for her damages went all the way to the Supreme Court.
Barry D. Parker, a maritime consultant whom we found by the birthday cakes, told us that he remembered the Mary Whalen’s accident vividly.
“I grew up on the East River, and when I was 14 years old, I got my first VHF radio. One of the first things I listened to was the crew talking after the Mary Whalen went aground.”
The waterfront was different then, more a part of the city and the communities around it, noted Rick Spilman, a nautical novelist, whose most recent book, Hell Around the Horn, is about a sailing ship run aground in Cape Horn. “The maritime sphere has kind of disappeared unless you’re in the business or live near the waterfront,” he said.
As the sun slipped lower, the spectators turned their attention to a hip-hop dancer, Ze Motion, who had strapped on a silver helmet and was spinning on his head. Ms. Salguero hauled out a huge wooden platter of bread and cheese and put on a Gene Autry album.
“The Mary Whalen out of the container port is a different feeling,” she said. “The thing about boats—this is why people get attached—they’re beautiful in and of themselves, but really, they’re beautiful because they move. It suggests the possibility of the human spirit.”