Female Seafarers Share Tales for Women's History Month

By Della Hasselle | March 29, 2011 8:31pm 
Jessica DuLong aboard the John J. Harvey, New York's retired fireboat.
Jessica DuLong aboard the John J. Harvey, New York's retired fireboat.
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Photo by Richard Adrian

By Della Hasselle

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

MANHATTAN – It wasn't until 9/11 that seafarer Jessica DuLong truly realized the significance of her job as an engineer on New York's oldest fireboat, the John J. Harvey.

That year, 2001, was DuLong's first in her transition from a "dot-comer" to engineer on the 80-year-old boat. When the boat was used to evacuate 300,000 people, and its pump soaked downtown Manhattan with millions of gallons of water, she saw the impact she and her little boat were having in the harbor.

"For me a really powerful part of being down there was witnessing the boat doing the job that she had been built to do," Brooklyn resident DuLong, 37, said in an interview. "It was a really painful reminder that, being from New York, we are a waterfront community."

DuLong, the author of biography "My River Chronicles: Rediscovering the Work that Build America," is one of seven seafarers who will be speaking at Midtown's Community Church of New York Wednesday night for a "Women at Sea" presentation. At the forum, women will talk about their life-changing experiences as modern seafarers on New York harbors and other waterways.

The Working Harbor Committee is holding the presentation in honor of women's History Month because many female sailors still feel that women's roles on the water often go unrecognized.

Though the days are long gone when women used to have to dress as men if they wanted to work on ships, only 10 percent of the maritime workforce is female, small boat captain Betsy Haggerty said in an interview.

"It seems that one of the most neglected sectors of the maritime industry has to do with women," Haggerty told DNAinfo. "It's good for women to get recognition for what they do."

To drive the point home, Wednesday's presentation will feature "Shipping Out: The Story of Seafaring Women," a 60-minute documentary that tells a rich history of women who have worked on ships, tankers, tugs and other vessels.

The presentation will also include a panel of engineers, tug captains, second mates and others who will explore the reasons why New York women seafarers still swim so far under the radar.

Although New York is the third largest port in the United States and brings in everything from the clothes New Yorkers wear to the bananas they eat and medicine they take, it's not a publicized form of shipping anymore, several seafarers said.

"We are trying to recapture the appreciation for types of work that will be crucial for a sustainable economy," Haggerty said.

Over the last 40 or 50 years, the waterfront has been viewed as more of a recreational place for New Yorkers than as a fertile ground for economic growth. Many don't realize that, at a pay of $400 a day, a significant living can be made on New York's harbors for both men and women, tugboat captain Ann Loeding said.

"It's really losing it's economic potential," said Loeding, who also specializes in historic vessel restoration. "The essence of what New York is is being lost."

But not all is lost, DuLong said, since the potential to introduce regular people to the wonders of New York's maritime industry is growing increasingly with restoration and other programs that institutions like Working Harbor implement.

For newcomers, the oblivion to life on the water also makes it that much more impressive when they come visit the fireboat and other historic vessels in the area, she added.

"All of a sudden the deck is exploding with water," she said of the sheer power of the fireboat when it's in use. "It's absolutely tangible and visceral. It's really amazing."

The Women at Sea Presentation starts at 6pm Wednesday at the Community Church of New York at 40 E. 35th Street.