The Sailor Man in New York


Somewhere in the Indian Ocean, the Maersk Alabama has just been attacked by pirates. Again.

Cargo ships are attacked somewhere in the world just about every day. But this is the same Maersk Alabama that had become the symbol for modern piracy last spring when its captain and crew were captured and then rescued in a daring raid.

Half a world away, the 1,000-foot-long cargo container Hanjin Osaka has just pulled into the APM Terminal in Port Elizabeth, New Jersey. The terminal is a mini-city unto itself, full of building-size machines and cargo containers stacked so high, they make 18-wheelers look like Matchbox toys.

Pastor Marsh Luther Drege and Port Chaplain Joshua Rinas, of the Seafarers & International House (SIH) near Union Square, have just arrived at the terminal’s gate. They’re here to visit the seafarers of the Osaka, but, like many people in port, their minds seem thousands of miles away, on the Alabama.

For a couple of Lutheran missionaries, their work doesn’t involve a great deal of Jesus talk. The two are loaded down not with Bibles, but with cell phones: “We sell seafarers phone cards and SIM cards at cost,” says Drege. “For all the wonders of technology, seafarers can go weeks, or months, without getting to talk to their families.”

“We’ll drive them to the mall, if they want, or to a Western Union,” says Rinas, a recent graduate from Yale who is working as a chaplain for the first time.

So after months at sea, what’s the one place that men who work at sea (and they are almost all men) want to go when a minister offers them a lift?

“Victoria’s Secret,” says Drege. It’s not so much about the underwear, he swears, as it is the “prestige for their wives or girlfriends getting to walk around Manila with a shopping bag from there.”

This image—of a married Filipino seaman having, at most, a couple hours’ shore leave and trying to squeeze in a money transfer as well as a trip to the mall—says as much as anything about how the shipping industry has changed in New York.

And SIH, the last boarding house for sailors in the city, has had to adapt to meet seafarers’ needs, even if it means going to Jersey.

New York, whose growth has been tied to the shipping trade since it was New Amsterdam, is more reliant on it than ever. Like most Americans, New Yorkers don’t really manufacture anything, and we rely on ships to deliver 90 percent of what we purchase. Pretty much everything we eat, drink, wear, or touch comes off a ship.

Long before Chelsea Piers was a sporting complex and the South Street Seaport a mall, the city was lined with active piers. The city’s residents were amply employed by the shipping trade, but containerization needed more land than would ever be available in the city: Massive ports sprouted in Elizabeth and Newark, and ships disappeared from the city. Efficient cranes replaced longshoremen, and the time in port for ships shrank from about a week to about a day.

“The technology changed the geography,” says William Fensterer, a chaplain who has been with SIH almost since its new building opened in 1964. “It doesn’t look like On the Waterfront anymore,” he adds. When he started out, he says, he would wander on foot from pier to pier in Manhattan and Brooklyn and board ships, with nary a guard in site. But those piers have largely vanished.

And along with them, the seafarer, once ubiquitous in New York, has become invisible.

“We want them to know we see them,” says Drege, the executive director of SIH, which originated as an immigrants’ house in 1873 by the Church of Sweden. The region was once abundant with such boarding houses, founded by churches in Northern European sailors’ home countries. Back then, sailors would find themselves in port for weeks between jobs, often with pockets full of cash and an inability to speak the language. The missions wanted to help these sailors (and steer their money toward a boarding room with a Bible, and away from bars and prostitutes).

Today, SIH is the only one left. For retired seafarers anchored here, it’s the only home on land they’ve ever known. For active seamen, it can be the last line of defense against homelessness.

But it’s only American seafarers who use the lodging now. International workers don’t find themselves in New York between contracts, and they don’t get much shore leave at all. And they’re not likely to be either European or Lutheran. Most are Filipino Catholics, with barely enough free time to spend a few hours off the boat.

SIH has adapted to the times: Drege and Rinas make their visit to the Osaka to meet seafarers where they are.

At least that’s the plan, until they find two Romanian workers at the terminal gate, looking for a ride to the Jersey Gardens Mall. The chaplains tell them to hop in.

Drege asks the Romanians about their voyage, but the conversation quickly turns to today’s news on the Alabama.

In April, pirates commandeered the Alabama and took its captain, Richard Phillips, hostage in a lifeboat. One of President Obama’s first mortal decisions as Commander in Chief was ordering Navy snipers to shoot Phillips’s captors. Three were killed and one was captured (and is now here in New York, awaiting trial).

The Alabama went back into service and was attacked by pirates for a second time. This time, the crew was successful in keeping the pirates from boarding, using hired armed guards, sound cannons, and evasive maneuvers.

“They should let us have guns,” says one of the Romanians, with a toothy smile and a gravelly voice. “We have military training.”

“Yeah,” says the other. “We’d shoot the bastards.”

The Romanian seafarers vent about a very touchy issue in the shipping industry: whether or not to arm crews. It’s easy to understand why these seafarers are for it. They spend months at sea, with just 20 people to defend a 1,000-foot ship carrying cargo worth millions. They can be attacked at any time by pirates wielding AK-47s or RPGs.

But the International Maritime Organization (IMO) discourages the arming of crews; most nations (including the United States) would never allow armed cargo ships in their ports. The IMO is also concerned about encouraging a pirate arms race when cargos can be so volatile. (Cargo ships can travel in convoys with military escorts through the Gulf of Aden and, under certain conditions, are allowed to have armed hired or military crews.)

The chaplains drop the Romanian seafarers off at Jersey Gardens, arranging for them to be picked up several hours later.

If only getting off the boat itself were so easy.

“The United States is the only major maritime nation that requires a visa for a seafarer to leave his ship in an American port,” says Douglas Stevenson, a maritime attorney who works at the Seamen’s Church Institute. But even with a visa, it can be tough for a worker with shore leave to get from a ship to the terminal gate.

In April, the Department of Homeland Security began requiring anyone in a port to be escorted by someone carrying a Transportation Worker Identification Credential card. Without a TWIC card, seafarers are allowed to leave their ship only a short distance to inspect it.

It’s just a fraction of a mile from ship to gate, but ports don’t miss a trick, and they can charge exorbitant fees to provide someone with a TWIC card to escort sailors on that short trip. So seafarers often spend their shore leave on the ship. (The APM Terminal is one of the few that provides a free shuttle.)

Being TWIC escorts is a big part of what the chaplains do, but it puts them in the awkward position of policing the people they’re trying to counsel. “We’re responsible for keeping people in our sight, and within 15 feet of us at all times,” says Rinas. “If there’s a problem, our organization can be fined $25,000, and I, personally, can be fined $25,000.”

Back in the port, the two men finally make their way to the Osaka, which is being loaded up by a large crane. It lifts cargo containers a hundred feet into the air and deposits them on the Osaka in about 20 seconds. It’s like watching one of the giant Transformer robots playing Tetris.

A round-faced Filipino seafarer in a bright orange jumpsuit approaches the chaplains. Despite the fact that there are about a million seagoing workers constantly traveling around the globe, this one immediately recognizes Rinas and calls him by name.

“What have you got for us?” the young seafarer asks.

The phone cards, magazines, and newspapers that Rinas offers are pretty standard. But what really makes the young man light up is the one international story the crew is more interested in than the Alabama: The Filipino welterweight Manny Pacquiao has just won his latest fight—and Rinas has brought the DVD.

The young man leads the others up a narrow gangplank to the deck of the Osaka, where a lone Filipino officer welcomes them aboard and leads them to the mess hall.

The crew soon swarms around to buy phone and SIM cards, while the young seafarer puts the Pacquiao fight on the TV. The group is pretty typical for a ship of this size: 15 Filipinos, two Bulgarians, one Georgian, a Russian first officer, and a Ukrainian captain. It’s owned by a Japanese company, but the language of the ship is English.

While his partner sells the cards, Drege begins asking the crew about their voyage. How has it been going? How is the weather? Did you have to go through the Gulf of Aden?

This crew just came from the Panama Canal by way of Savannah. From here, they leave for a 28-day trip directly to China, where they’ll turn around in a day and head straight back. As they get their cards, they scamper off quickly to call family members—it could be their last contact with home for a month.

The Russian first officer wanders into the mess hall. He boarded in Panama, and this is his maiden voyage as first officer. The conversation soon turns to pirates: He has crossed the Gulf of Aden 11 times, and doesn’t think too much of it.

“It’s not so bad,” he says. “One time, I see suspicious ship. I call in to the [America] military. Within minutes, there is a helicopter flying around—it scares the small boat away.”

What does concern him, though, is the thought of his wife worrying. Years ago, “I just wouldn’t tell her we’re crossing Gulf of Aden,” he says. But now, with ship-tracking websites, “It’s harder to lie to her.”

One of the great discomforts for seafarers is the omnipresent noise. The Osaka sounds like a jackhammer, mixed with the jets of a dozen 747s—and the main engine isn’t even on.

Many decks below, an impassive Bulgarian engineer sits at the controls. Inside his glass operating room, the sound is almost unbearable, even though the ship’s massive propeller shaft is motionless. The engine room is five stories deep. The heat can get up to 130 degrees, and when Drege comments on it, the seafaring guide laughs. “This is cool!” (The crew of the Alabama sealed themselves in a similar setting for 12 hours, without ventilation, during the April attack.)

As the chaplains depart, the “lashers” (longshoremen who make sure the containers are properly secured) say the ship will be loaded by 7 p.m. Five minutes after that, the ship will pull out as if it had never been there.

“Sometimes, people will ask us to pray with them,” says Drege, but it’s not often. If requested, he is prepared to pray with people, regardless of their religion or beliefs. Last Thanksgiving, a “Ro-Ro” (a cargo ship that moves cars) called him and asked him to exorcise a ship after several crew members claimed to have seen a ghost.

“Walking around throwing holy water is not part of my tradition,” says the stoic Lutheran. “But when in Rome . . .”

It’s a completely different scene at SIH on Irving Place. The building looks as anachronistic and antiquated as the word “seafarer” itself.

Part international hostel, part chapel, part flophouse, its open lobby in no way evokes your typical Manhattan hotel. There are no Eames chairs or Barcelona couches reminiscent of nearby Union Square boutique hotels. The almost proudly old-fashioned décor consists of furniture you’d expect to find in a church social hall somewhere in the Midwest.

But there it defiantly sits—the last boarding house for seafarers, seeming so out of place in the heart of hip New York.

In fact, although there are always rooms set aside for seamen, many of the 84 rooms are rented out to international travelers, which helps subsidize the work SIH does for seafarers. Between workers hanging out, young backpacking Europeans checking in, and clergy running around, it’s sometimes hard to tell who is who.

“People ask me all the time, ‘Where are the seafarers?’ ” says Clint Padgett, a chaplain with a historically German mission that uses space in the house. “And I tell them, ‘They’re all over the place! They’re not wearing an eye patch and a parrot on their shoulder. They’re right here.’ “

Murray Barr greets everyone in the lobby. A man of few words, he is one of the most familiar faces in the house: He has volunteered here for 45 years, ever since he returned to land in the ’60s. He became a seaman in 1948, after graduating from Corlears Junior High, a New York City public school that trained teenagers for sea work on active ships. (The school has been renamed and now boasts internships with a different kind of focus—at Goldman Sachs.)

Barr loved going to sea as a young man, when “you’d pull into the port, and have five days, a week, two weeks of shore leave.” For a kid from New York, it was a great way to see “just about every country on the face of the earth.” But today, unless seafarers are out of work, “you don’t get to see anything but a port.”

Barr reveals an essential difference between American and foreign seafarers. He is single, without children. Like most of the seafarers who crash at SIH, he has always been unburdened by a family of his own—or even any kind of permanent home. Filipinos will go home several months of the year; American seafarers seem to stay on the move.

“For many of us, this is the only home we have,” says Michael Penkwitz, who is staying at the house. He could just as easily pass for someone coming out of a show at Irving Plaza across the street: He has the voice of Jesse Ventura, but the look of Joey Ramone; his rocker appearance contrasts deeply with the well-worked hands that come with the life of working on the deck of a ship.

“A lot of seafarers have a hard time functioning on land,” Penkwitz admits. “For a lot of us, going to sea is a last resort.”

Penkwitz came from a family of Great Lakes seafarers, and was pushed into the life at 20 by relatives concerned about his lack of direction. His nomadic existence is markedly different from Filipino seafarers, who are usually married with children and often own their own homes. Filipinos get paid far less for the same work on a ship as an American, but their earnings go much further in their country.

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.

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.

The crew of the QM 2 at least tie up in closer proximity to New York City’s attractions than do cargo ships parking in New Jersey.

In real terms, this is what that boils down to: Instead of a ride to the Jersey Gardens Mall with missionaries, the Cunard Line provides a free shuttle to the Fulton Mall.

On a recent afternoon at SIH, Drege sits in his office, his desk stacked high with gifts for a “Christmas at Sea” program. They’re bags filled with socks, woolen gloves, and hats—things sailors shipping out from the tropics tend not to have.

“A lot of times, seafarers don’t pack enough warm clothes,” he says.

With Christmas approaching, he recalls a seafarer he was particularly close to, a Brazilian named Joao who had lived at the house periodically over 15 years. He stayed here as he fought liver cancer earlier this year, before he ended up in a hospice.

In Joao’s final days, Drege spent a lot of time with him. “We listened to ‘The Girl From Ipanema,’ ” which reminded Joao of his home, “and we’d just sit together,” he says. Joao had not wanted his family to know he was dying, but after some persuading, he allowed Drege to contact his relatives in Brazil. They arrived just in time to see him before he died.

“A lot of seafarers go to sea because they want to be untethered, they want to be unmoored. They like the freedom that comes with a life at sea,” Drege says.

At the time of his death, all of Joao’s belongings fit in a couple of bags in a locker at SIH, but there were fellow workers from around the globe at his funeral. “You should have heard the stories,” Drege says. “These guys really build a life for themselves out there.”

The Seafarers & International House is the last of its kind, a place for the ever-transient to rest for a moment.

“There are times, even for a seafarer, when they do need to be tethered, they do need to be moored,” Drege says.

“And when they do, we’re here.”

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