Seafood Dinners Aboard the Historic Mary A. Whalen

By: Frank Samperi

I had an unforgettable dining experience last weekend aboard the Mary A. Whalen, a retired tanker docked off the Brooklyn waterfront neighbordhood of Red Hook.

It was a perfect summer dinner party, dining atop the deck of a historic coastal oil tanker with salty smells of the seawater and the taste of fresh seafood.

The 172-foot boat was built in the Mathis Shipyard of Camden, New Jersey in 1938 — just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia — and had a busy career delivering fuel products up and down the Atlantic Coast, as far as Maine and Maryland. The Whalen was built for Ira S. Bushey, a Red Hook company that is no more. After 56 years of service, she was retired in 1994 and returned home to Brooklyn.

She is now the working offices of PortSide NewYork, a young non-profit group that promotes sustainable waterfront planning by advocating waterborne transportation — which PortSide maintains is the greenest way to move people and goods — and by providing educational, cultural and social service programs for the community on a water theme. PortSide's "H2O Arts" program includes everything from ship tours, talks, readings and walks to concerts, performances and movies.

A Supper Club series aboard the boat is in the works to raise awareness and money for needed renovations — I was lucky enough to be invited aboard for a couple test runs.

The first one came last fall, where a group assembled for a huge paella feast.

"Paella was chosen for the first dinner because I am Spanish, and paella is a big deal in my family" says PortSide director Carolina Salguero. Her father had several paelleras (paella pans); the largest was about 3 feet wide. It's hard to cook paella on a normal kitchen range with small burners — Spaniards cook them outside over firewood or on custom gas-ring stoves with several concentric rings of fire — but the flat griddle top of the galley stove is perfect for making the traditional Spanish dish.

The galley stove is a diesel-burning Webb Perfection Oil Range, patented in 1918 and manufactured in Philadelphia by Elisha Webb & Son Co. The company was founded in 1894, but is still in business and PortSide enjoys continued customer service on its antique stove!

But the stove is quite the challenge for everyday cooking for Salguero, who lives on the boat. This is partly because it requires running a fuel pump, holding tank and filter system to pump diesel in, but also because the large, cast-iron box can take hours to get to a temperature high enough to perform everyday cooking tasks, like frying an egg. The stove is, therefore, kept at a low rumble which serves the dual purpose of keeping the galley warm in the wintertime.

But there was no need to run the stove last weekend, when the Supper Club test-run returned with an early celebration of summer food. Guests enjoyed a lobster boil and fresh mussels!

Guest chef Domenic Venuto shows off the fresh catch, before popping the little guys into the pot.

Dinner aboard the boat is an incredibly memorable experience. The peacefulness of the water, passing ship traffic and looming port-gantry cranes make an atmospheric backdrop to a delicious dinner with friendly guests.

Carolina plans to launch the upcoming dinner party series with the goal of raising awareness and money to make necessary repairs to the Mary A. Whalen. The ship was recently determined to be eligible to be on the National Register of Historic Places, and PortSide is laying out plans for restoration that include repainting the exterior and interior, repairing the heat, running water and toilet systems, and one day, fixing the engine! The campaign will also help PortSide further its goals of getting a home that makes the ship accessible year-round to the public.

If you're interested in joining a dinner party or making a contribution to the cause, reach out to PortSide here:

And for great seafood recipes, look no further!
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