Through the Porthole
What you’re looking at is something most people never see: the view from inside a ship at a containerport and, more broadly, a glimpse into what is really happening on NYC’s waterfront. Along New York’s sprawling rivers and harbors there has been a lot of looking, but not enough seeing; I thank a college art professor for teaching me the difference between the two.
A ship sets sails soon after dawn while a pile of line sits on the deck, waiting for a tug to pick it up
I speak as a journalist who left the biz because I couldn’t get the real harbor story told in the conventional press, and so I set out to find other ways. For the past five years, I’ve been doing just that, from a home and office aboard the retired oil tanker Mary A. Whalen, the base of operations for a harbor-revitalization non-profit I founded called PortSide NewYork. Our goal is to inspire and create better use of NYC’s water space.
It took, and takes, a special effort to learn about New York’s expansive harbor, especially the boat sector, which is what spoke to me; you either had to get a boat or head to the trade press. There are now quirky blogs like Tugster and Bowsprite, as well as tug captains with YouTube channels—but none of those outlets cover the planning and policy aspects of the waterfront. The latter became my obsession fifteen years ago.
Like most New Yorkers, I grew up with little awareness of the Big Apple as port, archipelago and estuary. My first memories are from 2nd Place, just inland of where the tanker Mary A. Whalen now floats in Red Hook, before brownstones were a brand or Brooklyn was hip. All I knew of the harbor were the ocean liner bows I saw looming over the West Side Drive when we returned from my grandparents’ house out of town. I knew nothing of the port down the hill—where, forty years later, I now care for a ship.
The mariner life took hold of me by evolution, not by design. My family shifted to New England and got salty. I rowed crew at Yale. An uncle started a boatyard; I learned to sail there. The yard inspired one of my brothers to become a naval architect.
I started boating in New York in 1997. Dejected to be home after years of globetrotting photojournalism, I brought my first small sailboat here to keep the traveler in me from getting restless. Death brought other boats: to stave off anxiety about my stepmother’s imminent end, I got a jon boat in 2000 and began rowing daily in Erie Basin, Red Hook. That’s how I first saw the Mary A. Whalen and entered the graving dock that would become my muse; how I met tug captains and fell in love with the working waterfront. Seven weeks after my stepmother died, in 2010, a surprise cancer felled my father, and I kept his 26-foot powerboat to further my harbor photography.
Bouncing around on vessels in New York, I was stunned to find a whole other city out on the water—a world of boats and people with its own history, folklore, laws and regulation. The artist in me fell in love with this harbor as a beautiful, evocative physical space; the Hudson River School of painting does not exaggerate those skies.
I also saw the waterfront as a huge story about to break. The battles would be pitched; the real estate rhetoric smacked of manifest destiny, which deemed that no one of value was in the way of the expansion plan for this Wild West. I sought to understand how this harbor worked. I read, interviewed, attended hearings and conferences, hung out on piers. I learned the alphabet soup of planning terms and bureaucracy names (EDC, HRPT, USCG, PANYNJ, USACE, DEP, DEC).
I saw billions in public funds being spent on studies, plans, dredging, parks, with successes and boondoggles, and I saw little reporting about any of it. Ever hear of the $15-million Comprehensive Port Improvement Plan? It was scarcely reported, so most people haven’t. I wondered about the other stories that never appear, especially the ones about nothing happening. Where are the headlines like “Magnificent City Pier Still Unused After 20 Years,” “Sixth RFP for Waterfront Site Nets No Result,” “New Park Pier for Boats Has No Boats,” and “Permits, Why Do They Take So Long?”
My life pivoted around 9/11, as did many others’. At the time, I was shooting a project about NYC tugboats for National Geographic. I made it to the World Trade Center on my powerboat, which allowed me to shoot what became the largest, fastest boatlift evacuation in history; but the mainstream press made little note of the story at the time. 9/11 made me want to contribute, to make change; I helped start some harbor non-profits and then founded PortSide NewYork, in 2005.
Some of my favorite light comes on late summer afternoons, right before or directly after a squall; brooding and delicate all at once
Being the mother of an oil tanker has had strong elements of “be careful what you wish for.” Many was the night I headed down the pier thinking, “I live here, how did this happen?” There’s the oversize scale of the thing at 613 gross tons and 172 feet, but the biggest thing to tackle is the crazy level of bureaucracy one has to negotiate to find a home for a boat here, even a popular one! As a city, we’re making great progress in philosophy with our new Comprehensive Waterfront Plan, which sets a vision of progress through 2020, but it’s too hard to get to ‘yes’ in this harbor—there’s too much inaction and too many unused resources.
Maybe photojournalism spoiled me. It sure is easier to document change than to make it happen. I often photographed in troubled countries struggling for democracy, but bureaucracy is open for change at such times. In Romania in 1991, soon after Ceaucescu was toppled, I got a gypsy child a free brain tomography on demand, same day, at a Nomenklatura hospital solely on the dint of my U.S. passport, a great translator and a bit of New York chutzpah. In New York City, it has taken me seven months of multiple meetings to get a docking permit for a pier.
After I got over my own surprise at caring for an oil tanker, I found connective threads between life as photographer, photojournalist and mother of a ship. Mariners are not unlike artists. They’re creative, adventuresome people—people who work under duress and on the margins of society—independent, intrepid and often colorful. There’s “the craziness of life at sea level,” as a dock-builder friend puts it.
Like photojournalists, mariners like to explore new territory and like to get things done.
This August, my family sailed into Portland, Maine, and found this sign on the municipal pier: “Fishermen DO NOT CAST when FERRYBOATS are passing. Although appearing safe from dockside, ferry passengers are alarmed, and a bad cast could cause serious injury.” Ah…a region where judgment and individual responsibility have a role. Equivalent NYC sign: “NO FISHING.”
Photographing through my portholes has not been about the policy. It’s about the joy of life afloat, of seeing what the harbor is doing and the wonders of waterfront light. For years it’s been a very private joy, but I can feel the storyteller in me getting restless. What’s next? A new ship location? A new view? For sure, new ways to show what I see. The powerboat I used on 9/11 is running again—finally—so I can start giving harbor tours, and I’m hanging out a shingle as a consultant to help others find ways to make something of their waterfronts. For now, I’ll keep looking out my window, at the ships and the sweeping skies, and at the stresses and challenges, too.
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Carolina Salguero creates in the mixed media of photography, writing, oral history, and waterfront planning & happenings. She is harbor-obsessed and living on a ship as the Founder & Director of the waterfront non-profit PortSide NewYork and shipkeeper of the tanker Mary A. Whalen, from which all these photos were taken.