Heidi Benedikt, crew member of the MARY WHALEN, 1986-88: Oral History

Heidi Benedikt, former crew member of the MARY A. WHALEN (when the ship was an active oil tanker) was interviewed by PortSide NewYork's Jenny Kane in 2017.  

Heidi Benedikt, was the only woman we know to have been part of MARY's crew. She graduated from SUNY Maritime in 1985 and soon afterwards got work as an AB tankerman with the union local 333

Heidi Benedikt - part 1:

Heidi Benedikt - part 2:

Synopsis of interview with Heidi Benedikt, former crew member of the MARY A. WHALEN. Recording times in parenthesis are aproximate. 

(0:10) The delegate of the union convinced me to go work with the company Ekloff, owner of the MARY WHALEN, as a good place to get into the wheel house.

(2:06) I graduated with a BS — with a major in marine transportation and third mate’s oceans license.

(2:25) At that time, I was I think the only female working on deck in local 333 so I had to start out at the bottom. Local 333 controls most of the inland vessels in the harbor.2:52

JK How hard to get into?

HB It was extremely hard. I registered in the union 2-3 years before I graduated and then every 3 months I would call in to reactivate that I was looking for a boat. If they had called when I was still a cadet, i couldn’t take the job, but I knew it would take years. The first time they called me they didn’t realize I was a girl and they left a message on my machine saying have that boy benedikt give us a call and when I did, they wouldn’t give me the job. 3:35 Eventually, I found a delegate who felt I should be given a chance and when my name came up, I got the job.

(3:45) My first job was AB tankerman on a small clean oil barge called the Fuel Oil, for Reinhauer.

(3:54) It was what was called a day-boat — just 3 of us on board, the captain, myself, -AB tankerman and an engineer. We worked 2 days on, 2 days off. That boat had no amenities — no galley, we slept on lawn chairs, we used a bucket, no shower, no running water. There wasn’t much on that boat. 

JK How did it feel going onto the MARY WHALEN?

HB It felt like the good ship Lolipop! It was pretty amazing. I really didn’t want to go onto the boat— I was afraid to go onto a boat with 7 people. I was on a boat with 3 and we all liked each other. I knew i would be up against some strong opposition to me being on the boat...
(5:10) ...but when I got onto the MARY WHALEN, I was really welcomed.  

JK Who was the crew?

HB There was a capt, a mate, 2 AB tankermen, an engineer, and assistant engineer and a cook.

The thought was that Ekloff, who owned the MARY WHALEN had many tankers, as opposed to Reinhauer, and the idea was to get me into the Wheelhouse on the tankers. Back in the 80s, these small tankers were all over the harbor.

(6:02) And they felt that was a good place for me to be working my way up. But the theory was that I’d have a better path on the tanker — Ekloff owned maybe 7 tankers so there was a lot more opportunities.

(6:30) First day The capt was John Burcato, the mate was Bill McGhee, the deck hand, his name was Steve Boone, and I do remember I was really surprised to see him-
He was really tall, a nice looking guy in a leather jacket, and I was thinking ‘you should be a model’ and at that time, I was so convinced that the dirtier I was, the more I would be accepted, and this guy refused to get his hands dirty. So that was really interesting for me to meet him.

(7:38) Vinnie was the cook. He had a slaughter house in NJ, the Chief Engineer was named Teddy, and soon, a classmate came on as asst Engineer, John Pavek.

JK Did you know where you were going?

HB No, you never knew where you were going. But most of our work, was in the Gowanus Canal. We were on a charter for Bayside so the boat went to either Bayside on Gowanus or Bayside by Cropsey Avenue in Bklyn. When they didn’t want the boat, we were free to do other work, so we did bunkering and other ship work. We brought fuel to ships, we did ship work.

(9:40) It was a black oil boat, we carried either #4 or #6 , industrial heating oil. The boat did not have coils (heating coils?) black oil need to be hot so pump it off the boat, otherwise it gets solid. So whatever we did, we had to do quickly.

JK Where was your cabin?

HB We were forward of the breezeway. Before I was on the MARY WHALEN, I must have done one week on the JOHN TABELING, it was really loud, near the bells and gongs, and on the MARY WHALEN, it was forward of the breezeway, I think we had the best room, we were outside of the engine room.

(11:05) six hours on, six hours off. We had a sink, there were 3 cabinets and they put a fourth in so we were able to leave our things on the boat, and the heads were in the engine room.

JK What was it like on a bell boat?

HB Going across the harbor was pretty nice, it was quiet, but any other time when there was maneuvering, it was pretty loud. It was extremely loud. Going into the Gowanus was particularly loud because we went bow in and then we would turn around half way in and back the rest of the canal. And that turning around was maybe 20 maneuvers so there was a lot of sounds.

There would be a series of bells and gongs - that the captain or the mate, there were little levers that he would pull…and it would go down to the asst or the chief engineer, depending on who was on watch, so the asst. engineer sat in the upper engine room —

(13:50) — discharging the cargo. Underway, I did a lot of maneuvers with the Captain because I was learning how to steer. Or we had a black and white TV, or we did deck work, maintenance work. The boat was in really good shape, we kept the boat pretty clean when we were there. So you would do maintenance work, depending on the weather, on watch and whenever we were in port, you would be loading or discharging.

(14:31) You’d have to swing the cargo hose ashore, be hooked up. The engineer would get the engines going. We had two engines in the forward part of the boat, 2 pump engines , one was a gear pump…. Then you would do paperwork, the other tanker-man would do paperwork, someone from the shore comes, you do all the coast guard papers, you gauge the tanks to show how much product is on the boat. Now it’s a closed system but back then, it was an open system and you’d open all the tanks, you would gauge the tanks, do the paperwork and then start loading or discharging. There was always product on the boat— it was black oil - so you were never totally empty. So you;d always have to gauge.

JK How low did the boat ride?

HB When it was full, we were like below water, not too sure that’s allowed. Yeah, your feet would get wet if you were out on deck. So the middle part of the boat - We did not go fully loaded into Gowanus - there’s not too much water there. The capt would tell us how much product to put into each tank. (16:23) But to go into Cropsey Avenue, there was plenty of water and we would load it to the max. Yeah, we were under water.

We stayed in the harbor. We went to Albany — that was a road trip — took two days—Back then I used to think if you went over 138th street you fell off the earth. It wasn’t until I left Ekloff that I ever left the harbor. Albany was as far as we went.

(18:03) Having black oil on the boat, one of the nicest things was that the decks never freeze cuz they’re always warm with product. Or if you’re empty, if any ice forms, as soon as you start loading product, the deck stays pretty warm. That’s one of the nice things about a black oil boat. We only carried 4 and 6.

JK Any smoking?

HB Things were a little different back then…. so theoretically there was no smoking, anywhere there was product, but I do remember people sitting out on deck smoking a cigarette.

Part 2

0:00 Meals

HB Meals were pretty good, we had a big round table in the galley, Vinnie would cook — he was really crazy. He made most of my food pink, because pink is for girls, so yeah,

I always had pink mashed potatoes, and pink dumplings, I had a lot of pink food.

(0:40) It was probably one of the most fun places I ever worked. They were great. But you never knew what to expect. They were very good to me. Vinnie had a slaughter house, used to bring in, so a lot of the meats were fresh, …. meals were pretty good, they were served family style, galley was huge…

I left there when we went on strike in 88 — so I’m guessing 86 to the beginning of 88.

(2:00) One week on, one week off. And then in the summer, when the boat wasn’t moving as much heating oil, the boat would become a day boat, so a full crew boat —capt, mate, two deckhands, two engineers, and a cook, so when things slowed down, they would turn the boat into a day boat and get rid of the assistant engineer, the cook and the mate but you still had to have 2 AB tanker-men. you got paid 24hrs a day. But you didn’t work the full week. ….Steve and I would always go disappear, we were always missed the boat . ….. you’d have to take a cab and find where the boat was.

We had a crazy guy called the Farmer — he worked in the summer — and everyone told me he was going to hate me and he kind of did. And he always walked around naked, to try to upset me, but he turned out to like me in the end…

(3:44) We all left in '88. And Teddy always had his dog on the boat, looked like a fender. Yeah, we left February 13th, 1988. They went down south and hired people to replace us. I remember people were really upset, and I don’t know if they ever did, but people were going to sabotage boats before they went out. I remember we scrubbed that boat so clean. When we walked off that boat, I never thought it would be for good. It was my steady boat.

(5:46) Worked picket line, proud of the union, they let me in. My dad got sick, then Jan 1, left and got job with Mobile. Got in as AB tanker-man and I left as a mate. I was there for on and off 12 years. Worked back and forth — worked with different companies…

I’m tour guide —love my job . I’m on the water.

(7:34) I think the MARY WHALEN was a great time for me —even though I wasn't in the wheel house yet, I think that was pre-VALDEZ, things were different back then. Maybe the industry needed to get cleaned up a little bit but things just got progressively harder on the boats, the salaries got worse, the strike, after the VALDEZ meant less crew, more work, less money, … so now the boats don’t run with the same amount of crew. I had some good times at Mobile but I think most of my career I was fighting against somebody or something.

After Valdez, the manning got less, the work got harder, no overtime. Overtime went away — more job satisfaction now. (9:28)... It’s a man’s world, always has been. Every company I worked for, I hate to say it wont change, but starting at the bottom every time, eventually you reach a point where you just don’t want to start at the bottom again.

(10:14) But I got my license, etc…. I think the saddest part is that as a tour guide on a boat, you can make more money than a captain and no one ever claps for the captain. (10:43)

(11:20) Almost everything ran below deck on that boat, it was nice, big open deck. What ran on the upper deck, the outside looked like it was. Some of the rooms are different. Two cargo hoses…

(12:50) When I was on the MARY WHALEN I thought it was a super tanker! The first boat I worked on - the Fuel Oil, was 5,500 barrels, the MARY WHALEN about 8,800 and I left my career working on 400,000 barrels. so it was like really, this is pretty small! But it was nice, The harbor was filled with those little tankers back then. (13:24)

The MARY WHALEN looked like a ship — the fuel oil didn’t — it was a cute little ship— but it looked so small when I went back on it. (13:56)

(talk about visiting the capt)

(15:06) For most people, when I showed up, I was the first [woman]! Yes, he was really really nice to me. Steve and I were like unruly kids and he just shook his head — Steve, me and Vinnie the cook. (15:30)

JK What else did he cook?

HB I just remember a lot of meat and pink potatoes and dumplings…. Like every boat, lunch always had a soup and an entree, full meals, dinner always had a salad.

I just remember we always had a lot of Windex. No matter what we asked for, they would give us Windex so we would clean the whole boat with Windex. (17:20)


JK Was the work hard?

HB No, because of Steve. The guy in the leather jacket. He seriously Never got his hands dirty, his hair dirty. In a thousand years, he’s not what you would imagine on a boat. Until I went there, I always thought that if I never wore gloves, I would be accepted because my hands would look... dirty. And Steve, Steve never touched anything without gloves. Nothing. His hands were always perfectly clean with a perfect manicure, and his hair was always perfect. We looked really funny together - he was about 6’3 …about 5’2. (18:28)

(18:47) I remember bunkering the ships on the fruit docks on the east side and the guys on those ships could never figure out why there was a girl on the boat, if I was the captain’s girlfriend, and then I would find all the PH and Playboy magazines and give them to the guys on the ship and they would give me pineapples and bananas and these little six packs of vodka because back then, drinking was not frowned on and they would lower them all down. And then the guys would come on the next week and say where are all the magazines, and I would say, I don’t know, but don’t put them in my locker. It was always good for a laugh to see what they would throw down from those fruit ships. Cases and cases of pineapples. (19:49) The banana boats, the fruit boats.

(20:06) They decided to send the boat to Albany and all of sudden, everybody got sick because no one wanted to go to Albany, it was that far away. And nobody wanted to go past Gowanus Canal. They were harbor people. And I remember everyone saying I’m sick, I’m sick, and, I was really excited - really, Albany on a boat! - I’d never been so far on a boat — they had to [send a new crew] … We ran aground that night.. the river is really dark… we had PB&J sandwiches and waited for the tide to come in. Everyone else was brand new on the boat…. (21:25) Things were different back then.

(23:34) Captain of the BEAST, on September 11th, went back as Cap. of BEAST, didn’t want to be micromanaged… a lot of people went ahead of me…. so was a rickshaw driver for a while.. NY 2001, I’m going to get my tour guide license and that’s what I did.

(26:43) My name is Heidi Benedikt —and we’re in Stuyvesant town and I worked on the MARY WHALEN as AB tanker-man from the end of 1986 until the end of 1988 when local 333 went on strike.

Heidi also stopped by the WHALEN in 2020 and joined PortSide's ED Carolina Salguero's sunset Facebook stream:

Follow this link for a curated compendium of MARY A. WHALEN stories



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