PortSide NewYork Sandy Story: Saving MARY WHALEN

This story was original posted as a PortSide NewYork blog in 2013


Thursday, 10/25/12, Sandy minus four, the PortSide crew is excited to be hosting an elementary school class aboard the tanker MARY A. WHALEN.  After finishing a TankerTour and jolly lunch for 30 on deck with the City + Country School and waving goodbye to their coach bus, Dan Goncharoff says “have you been looking at this storm coming up the coast?”


I check the weather websites. This looks like hurricane Irene plus some.  

We convene a crew meeting and start hurricane preparations. School docents become a Sandy prep squad. By end of day, the deck was cleared of anything that could blow, and I am calling and emailing around for crew to help prepare and to ride out the storm on the ship. 

Friday morning, after more info about the storm, I am trying to find a protected berth for the tanker MARY A. WHALEN.  Just days before, we received word that our application had been accepted; the ship was on the National Register of Historic Places! Since the MARY is not fully restored, she lacks some equipment that would help her in a big storm: a working engine (eg, the ability to run away), machinery to raise her anchors if dropped to hold us in place, and a winch to haul in docklines under load. Compensating for that involves some extra forethought. 

Despite our efforts, we can’t find a good alternate berth for the MARY outside of the Red Hook Container Terminal.  Hughes Marine says “We’re out of space. You’ll be able to walk across Erie Basin by the time this is over; it will be so full of vessels.”  A contact at a shipyard says “we flooded during Irene, and this one looks to be worse, you sure you want to be over here?” “No and good luck,” is my answer.

After more checking of the weather, I decide to move the MARY where she rode out Irene, on the other side, the north side, of our current Pier 9B. (The south side lines up with the end of Degraw Street). For non-sailors, here’s how this kind of calculation goes:

Winds were expected to start from NE, swing around to the East and end up SW, but this could always change. If rough weather were coming from anything west to southwest, our current position has us exposed to the wind from the southwest and the fetch (long stretch of water over which wind can build up waves) from Staten Island up the Buttermilk Channel

The fendering (the wooden cribbing protecting ship and pier) is not robust on this side. A big advantage to the north side are some pilings at the inshore end that stand much taller than the pier and which would help prevent the tanker from riding up onto the pier if the surge were really high. 

The north side would have us more exposed from winds at the start of the storm, but the hill of Brooklyn Heights and the pier to the north of us (even though it has no shed) would provide a compensating wind break.  

As the wind clocked around to the south, a wall of containers near the bulkhead would provide a windbreak to the east, and the pier shed would be an enormous windbreak once the wind went south of east.  

A final consideration was that in the extreme case of docklines failing while we were on the northside, the tanker had a chance of bouncing around inside the space between the two piers for a while, maybe long enough for us to get other lines out or call for help; whereas, on the southside of the pier, if our docklines broke, tide or wind could shove the ship up on the rocks nearby to the south (surely the death of the tanker) or shoot us down the Buttermilk Channel towards unknown risks. 

I began calling tugboat companies to request a tow. Everyone is busy with storm prep so getting a tug takes a while.  I have the tug turn the MARY around so her stern faces east, putting her heavier end towards the expected wind direction. Her light bow is my worry.

The tug’s crew helps us put out storm lines, more lines than we would normally use, and double and triple parted lines. (Instead of a line just going from boat to dock, a triple-parted line goes from dock to boat to dock to boat).  The lines are set with a lot of slack to allow the boat to rise during the expected surge.  During Sandy, Peter Rothenberg and I will go out in the wind and rain to ease the lines as necessary

From Thursday until Monday, a changing array of volunteers bang through a punch list: gangway lashed to the deck. Gas generator moved near entry hatch and tested.  Gasoline, food, and water bought. Weepy portholes caulked. PortaSan moved inside the pier shed so it can't blow away.  

More calls to look for crew... Commercial boats have paid crew, but most historic vessels rely on a corps of volunteers and; with so many boats to protect, available bodies were scarce.  Compounding that, due to the dangersome spouses do not allow their partners to volunteer on the historic ships during the storm. Danger is one thing for paid crew; as a volunteer, it's another.

I ask Peter Rothenberg, our volunteer museum curator, if he wants to be crew. Peter makes a speedy calculation, “I hesitated for a moment, thinking this may be really unwise, and then said yes, probably being more reckless (brave?) than normally, because I had just lost my mother, and thus she was unable to question my judgment.”  


The harbor is abuzz with chatter on phone, email, and texts sharing weather info, plans, moral support. Mike Cohen has info on the South Street Seaport ships. Mike Abegg is dealing with the Harbor School boats. I talk to tug captains and ask Jan Andrusky, Logistics Manager of Weeks Marine, if she can share weather and Coast Guard updates as she had during Irene. Answer, “yes!” Jan is responsible for floating equipment on the eastern seaboard, the Gulf of Mexico, and more, and has lots of experience and access to weather data.

Bobby Silva, captain of a Reinauer barge up in Albany sends a text: “wish I gave you my keys to move my truck. My baby will be a goner.”  Other Reinauer crew who have not been sent out of town on vessels moved their vehicles from Erie Basin to the second floor of the garage at the Gowanus Home Depot and all their vehicles survived.

About a day before Sandy hit, the word comes that the surge would be at least 8 feet. Time to lengthen docklines.  

A sign that things will be worse than Irene is that the port moves the stack of containers along the bulkhead. My windbreak to the east is gone.  We also hear that the Port Authority will evacuate the port and lock the gates at midday before the surge, so there would be no new help getting to us. I ask the Port Authority Police officer if he will leave port if it gets really bad, “no, I will just drive a dump truck on patrol” is his stalwart answer. 

Somewhere in all this, there is an announcement that subways would stop running in advance of the storm, and Mayor Bloomberg declares evacuation for Zone A areas, which include our neighborhood of Red Hook. An evacuation order is not changing my plans, though it could limit my getting help.  

My mother calls “you’re not staying on the boat during this are you?”  My responsibility is to protect the MARY A. WHALEN and to protect her from doing damage to the property of others. AT 172’ long and 613 gross tons, she is big enough to cause a lot of destruction if she breaks loose.

Sandy is due Monday night. Sunday night, I am one of many recipients of an email telling Red Hook people which bars will be open and what movies are being screened.  This makes me wonder: Is the community ashore prepping for Sandy? Has anyone evacuated? After that email, PortSide’s maritime world feels separated from our shoreside neighbors by more than six blocks and a fence. 

Monday day, the weather rachets up.  My weather station is set up in the galley.  A laptop, a clipboard with regular print-outs of NOAA marine weather, updates from Jan, the worst news highlighted in yellow.  Peter nabs the ship's cat Chiclet and locks her in. As the weather rises, Chiclet cleans herself incessantly.  

I read the shocking news that the HMS BOUNTY has sunk in the storm, at sea. I hear from Paul Amico, a dockbuilder advising us, “I just saw a Don Jon tug heading up the North River with waves breaking over the wheelhouse.” That means 18’ waves in the Hudson.


It gets colder and damper. I fire up the galley’s diesel stove, patented in 1918, as much to dry the air as to heat it.  As winds rise, Peter and out go out to add extra lines to the tarp covering the wheelhouse windows. After warming up over tea, I get word that the surge would be at least 12’ and would hit in about 5 hours, right at high tide. 

12’ is NOT good news. I am keen to keep the ship’s light bow from blowing or floating up onto the pier, my big worry during Irene, a risk to both boat and pier. The MARY’s stern is heavy and sits about 8’ in the water whereas her bow is actually up out of the water -- the forward engine room has been stripped, the forepeak has no ballast water, and she is carrying no cargo.  Paul Amico calls, “have you considered a preventer line?”  Yes. I turn to Peter, “time to go back out, time for a preventer line.”   

We run a line to Pier 9A, the pier 265 feet to the north of us.  We have a large collection of lightly-used docklines from tugboat friends. I bend together (that means tie together in mariner speak) two heavy eight-braid tug hawsers, and then add all our other dock lines.  To drag this through the water, we tie together an agglomeration of light line (rope) and hand-haul the collection around to the other pier.  

We are making the line off to a cleat on Pier 9A as the waters start to rise fast.  While heading back to the tanker, the waters crest the bulkhead and pool into the port.

The string piece of the pier is several feet higher than the port landmass, which gives us about 5 minutes to disconnect our shorepower cord, pull it up onto the boat, haul in the ladder, and start the generator. 

Somehow, between unplugging the shorepower from the shed and getting the cord onto the shed, our electrical system develops a short.  This means the generator turns off every time I plug in the shorepower cord. Peter then runs an extension cord to the generator to keep the laptop and mini fridge running.

So begins 35 nights, of relying on flashlights and one 15-amp extension cord, until our shorepower connection can be repaired.

The waters rise. The port’s exterior lights go out. A container lifts and bobs our way.  Humps appear in the water along the pier, like a long Loch Ness monster. I realize I am looking at all the tire fenders floating as high as their straps would allow. Somehow the overhead lights inside the shed stay on, and the windows in the doors afford the surreal view of an indoor sea.  

Peter and I watch orange bursts of light over Manhattan. “Probably transformer explosions,” I say.  Manhattan goes dark. I watch the water for several hours to make sure it isn’t rising and then sleep for several hours.


Tuesday’s plan is to shorten the docklines and get off the boat; but the wind is still so high that, even though the shed is a windbreak, the wind roaring over the shed is enough to grab the tippy top of the tanker and push us off the pier. The ebb tide pushes us back onto the pier, and we pull in a little line; then the wind blows us off again. Given how many lines we had out and that they were double and triple parted and since we don’t have a working winch, it takes us three hours of floating back and forth to shorten all the lines and get the boat to the pier.  

I get a few worried calls and emails asking us if the MARY is aground. Perplexing, until I learn that a similar tanker, the JOHN B. CADDELL, is aground on Staten Island, a cautionary tale of what can happen if a ship is not well tended before and during such a storm.


At dusk, some volunteers make it in. Jenny Kane, Amy Bucciferro, Paul Amico after inspecting the damage at the DUMBO ferry dock.

I tell Peter that PortSide had historic documents stored in one room in the shed. 

Peter looks startled, then irked at me and, as he told us weeks later, “This was news to me and I scrambled to rescue what I could.  Unlike riding out a storm on a ship, dealing with wet paper artifacts I was familiar with.  I had worked in museums for years, with collections stored in leaky basements, and had rescued a lot of paper ephemera after 9/11.  Fearing fused wet paper and mold, I turned the tables on Carolina and charged her to get as many dry sheets and towels as she could find fast.”


I kick in the door to the stevedore's lounge, and we all schlepp tables up the stevedore’s lounge (I find the height of the second floor oddly comforting after the flood).  Modern books we junk.  Peter begins a painstaking process of separating wet papers, blueprints and photographs, blotting them dry, interleaving them with sheets, weighing them down.  I am bushed and crash into my bunk. 

Peter works until 4 am, bringing things aboard and slowly toasting some near the galley stove.

Over the next several days, Peter covers most horizontal surfaces in the tanker with drying antique documents. “Some of the blue prints lost most of their blue to the water, and the modern pulp paper fared worse than the rag paper of the 1800s; but in the end most of the important items in the collection, if a little worse for wear, were salvaged.”     

Wednesday, the Halloween that never was, Peter and I head into the shed to inspect more things.  

The hard-to-find vintage engine parts that could repair MARY’s engine have been submerged. Ditto all the historic artifacts from Todd Shipyard.  Ditto our electrical transformer. 

I make some calls and am told to douse the transformer in fresh water, dry it, and then spray it heavily with di-electric cleaner. We retrieve buckets of water from our rain barrels (there is no running water connection to the ship) and pour them over the transformer. I locate one outlet with power (which blessedly worked for a few days), plug in a fan and park it in front of the transformer. (The treatment above worked. We are still using this transformer in 2021!)

Drying our rinsed transformer. We were so lucky! Right after several days of drying, the power in the outlet went out. The ebbing waters pinned lots of dunnage around our transformer.

The engine parts are beyond us, and we turn to the artifacts.  

Once upon a time, Peter had carefully wrapped each one in paper and identified each with a number and a photo. That labeling system is gone. We unwrap it all and leave stuff to air out. I console myself with the thought that shipyard artifacts have likely been wet before.

An email arrives saying Red Hook restaurants are cooking their food at a community BBQ rather than have it be wasted, BYO charcoal, and Peter and I bike into Red Hook toting some charcoal.

I leave the port with my spirits high.  The ship is fine, the artifact loss was minimal. Irene had been a great preparatory experience; we had survived Sandy. 

A few blocks down Van Brunt my spirits drop. I was a photojournalist for some 15 years and worked in rough places overseas, and I recognize the signs of disaster.  A burm of garbage three to four feet high lines Van Brunt Street. Dazed and muddy people mill around at the corner of Pioneer Street amid the clatter of generators and a tangle of electrical cords.  

Peter remarks that it looks like a macabre Christmas. Santas, which had been stored in cellars, are now muddy and atop garbage heaps, or, at the bar Bait and Tackle, set up by the door like a dark joke.  In short, the mess ashore is bad, much worse than the damage to PortSide NewYork. I immediately decide that PortSide should come ashore to help our neighbors.   


PortSide NewYork would like to thank the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for their support during Hurricane Sandy while we were in their Red Hook port.

For our latest Sandy relief info, see our blogpost, follow us on Twitter.

Additional reporting and editing by Dan Goncharoff and Peter Rothenberg.

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