The Sailor Man in New York

Invisible seafarers in a city still addicted to shipping

On any given day, you can find the mezzanine of the house full of retired workers. After a lonely life at sea, they will often return here, to this place—the one home they've known—to watch football, talk about news, and recall the worst storms they've weathered and close calls they've survived.

The active seafarers are just waiting here for their next ship to come in.

And with no sure way of knowing when that will be, the wait can grow excruciating.

Pastor Marsh Luther Drege drowns in some of the 2,000 “Christmas at Sea” gift bags SIH will give away to seafarers.
Jackie Snow
Pastor Marsh Luther Drege drowns in some of the 2,000 “Christmas at Sea” gift bags SIH will give away to seafarers.
Retired seafarer Murray Barr has volunteered at SIH for 45 years.
Jackie Snow
Retired seafarer Murray Barr has volunteered at SIH for 45 years.

The Seafarers International Union Hall is located in Park Slope. Moms with strollers might be the first thing you think of in Park Slope, not sailors looking for work, but, hey—those strollers undoubtedly were brought here by those men.

Most days, seafarers hop on the R train from Union Square and go out to spend their days waiting in an old-fashioned union hall. Its only technologically modern feature is the large LED screen that lists ships seeking crews. The board is really a raw indicator of the consumer economy: If there are ships, it means people are buying stuff and there's work.

On a recent morning, there is only one ship listed. It's the same one Mike Penkwitz declined to sign up for yesterday because of its route through the Gulf of Aden.

"It's too hot down there right now," says Penkwitz. He was a little freaked out the last time he was there, when his ship was suddenly surrounded by six speedboats full of pirates. Fortunately, they had armed U.S. military onboard, who fired warning shots until the boats disappeared.

Morris Coronel, a 73-year-old cook, is also waiting for a job in the hall. He's the oldest member of his union still going to sea. He first went out in 1957, and his primary home, over the past half-century, has been on ships. He is also currently staying at SIH.

When Coronel was a young seafarer, the crews on American-owned ships were American. (It is now far more common for American lines to register their ships under a flag of convenience, so they can crew up with cheaper labor.) They'd all stay at a large boarding house at 17 State Street, where, Coronel says, "rooms were $1.75, $2.50, or $3.00 a night," and it wasn't lonely at all. There were sailing friends spilling into the streets.

Coronel doesn't get the big deal about why pirates are suddenly in the news, and he isn't very worked up about safety. But he did have one experience that shook him up, on a cargo container near the United Arab Emirates.

His ship, too, had U.S. military onboard, but they were reluctant to use firepower when a small boat got uncomfortably close. Filled with ammunition, the cargo ship was literally a bomb waiting to go off.

"The guards were doing everything they could not to use their weapons," he says. If the small boat had shot back, "They'd have blown us to the moon!" (The boat eventually turned away.)

Coronel would go on the ship heading through the Gulf of Aden, but it doesn't need a cook. So he keeps waiting. He has no plans to retire, and will sail as long as his health holds out.

"When you go to sea, and come back to land after a long trip, everything is new to you. Mentally, that's a good thing in a lot of ways," he says.

The RMS Queen Mary 2 rises above the roof line of the projects and warehouses in Red Hook like some kind of vessel from another world. To see it towering above the port at the Brooklyn Terminal is to witness a 20-story-tall, two-block-long luxury building that must eventually realize it has rolled into the wrong neighborhood.

The Seamen's Church Institute operates a building next to the QM 2, a one-stop shop for many needs: Internet café, phone-card shop, Western Union wiring service. It operates with factory-like precision, and has to: The QM 2 has 1,300 seafarers working onboard.

The workers on a passenger ship have a different life from their cargo counterparts. There are many more women working, there's more social interaction, and the job seems to be—by and large—safer. There is access to the Internet onboard, but it's prohibitively expensive and incredibly slow for the crew to use.

So, at stops like these, the QM 2's workers flood SCI's center. Although they're from all over the world, most are Filipinos. In cubicle after cubicle, row after row, you see Filipino men wearing headsets and talking on Skype, each scene remarkably similar, each man chatting with a woman he has woken from sleep on the other side of the globe. Some of the women, visible on webcams, are holding up sleeping children for the men to see. Some are holding newborn infants the men have never met.

"The biggest threat to the maritime industry is not piracy. The biggest threat is hiring and retaining enough skilled seafarers," says SCI's Stevenson. Piracy doesn't help in recruiting, but the real deterrent for the workers who make the world's cheap goods available is spending months away from their families without ever going ashore, even briefly.

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