Maritime: The Women of the Waterfront

Caroline Waloski at work in Greenport. Madison Fender photos

Rounding the corner on Carpenter Street, rusted metal warehouses rise above untamed, plant covered fences and the few lush summer trees. Save for the barren masts of sailboats in front, the place looks rather nondescript. But what happens inside the Greenport Yacht and Shipbuilding Company is anything but. The soul of Greenport’s maritime past, present and future is the people that keep the working waterfront alive. Seamen, boat builders, oyster growers and marine biologists are the physical movers and shakers of the industry, while others share the stories that educate the local and visiting communities alike. As preparations are made to turn this symbolic shipyard into the venue for the annual Land and Sea Gala, kicking off the East End Seaport Museum and Foundation’s Maritime Festival, the role of women on Greenport’s waterfront take special shape as the festivities begin.

The mystery of the sea has long drawn the curious to its waters, whether by shore or tides. Its constant movement, shapeshifting and what lurks below has led to many a tall tale. In recent fashion and fascination, mermaids have been idolized as these secret keepers of the deep. Naturally inspired by seascapes and driven by feminism, Caroline Waloski, owner of Sirens’ Song Gallery, has found mermaids to be an ideal subject for her work as an artist, bringing them into a feminist point of view with woman as the creator and its forthcoming from an amniotic sea, and also as organizer of the festival’s Merry Merfolk Parade. This year, she is taking the village’s old wooden dory and transforming it into a mermaid-themed float that pays tribute to its history on the high seas.

“When I started talking to the marine community, I learned the history of the buff color,” Waloski explains of her approach to this multi-purpose piece. “It was able to be seen against sky and sea. The inside will remain this dory-buff and I’ll try to incorporate it into the outside of the boat, which will also be this wild and beautiful thing.”

Fueling fantasy works, the waters surrounding the entire North Fork offer great meaning to Waloski. The liveliness of history and its role today in the maritime village is something that she credits to those that are driving the industry forward by working to preserve and protect this treasured resource. Waloski got to know Cornell Cooperative Extension marine program outreach manager Kimberly Barbour while working on the parade as well as Shellabration in the winter. Connecting the community to science-based projects is a proactive educational effort that can help to restore the marine habitats baymen rely on.

Suffolk Project in Aquaculture Training (SPAT) is one of the organization’s biggest initiatives to support oyster growing and the waters. The populations are important to the health of the bays and waterfront, something that resonates with Barbour and many others that call this island their home.

“I’m the daughter of a bayman,” Barbour shares. “My formative years were spent on a clamming boat. I appreciate and have seen first-hand the importance of balancing the marine ecosystem and economy. My father witnessed first-hand the impact of environmental problems on local resources. His work on the bay is an inspiration to me and I looked to him for guidance in my own career path.”

While water quality is one of the most pressing issues on Long Island, especially along a working waterfront like Greenport, one can find solace in that it is not all doom and gloom as the public takes notice. The water is why so many have chosen to live on the East End. Understanding this and a desire to preserve what so many love is a driving motivation for Barbour.

Pat Mundus on the water.

To sit with captain Pat Mundus and talk about Greenport is to have a true born and raised seaman’s view of what a working waterfront means. The owner of East End Charters has had more than her fair share of time on boats of all shapes and sizes throughout her long career. There is a sincerity in this charter work as well, and crews make sure passengers have more than a good time by showing them beautiful, isolated places that can only be accessed by water: the heart and soul of the environment.

A working waterfront is right within Mundus’ purview. She gives back and takes pride in being able to shape future female captains, being the mentor she never had. Montauk-born, she was drawn to Greenport for its authenticity, naming the five marine railways, two big marinas and two wooden boat builders, which is unheard of in a small community with only 2,200 people living in it.

“People really need to see what our waterfront culture is,” says Mundus, who started the classic boat exhibit in Mitchell Park and on the waterfront for the Maritime Festival, and also served as Grand Marshall in 2015. “Everyone thinks we’re an ex-fishing port, which is true, but there’s this huge, vibrant industry in recreational boating — that is the new commercial waterfront.”

There is a layer of nuance about the commercial waterfront industry that many don’t know about. Local boats that are built and restored by artisans driving this unique artform forward that doesn’t often make the spotlight. A taste of this can be experienced at the Land and Sea Gala when the Langendals open their shipyard so guests can see and experience works in progress. When it comes to celebrating maritime culture, the museum and foundation’s biggest fundraising effort is an asset.

Linda Kessler takes in the views in Greenport.

It was a natural flow for Linda Kessler to become the co-chair of the Maritime Festival. She first began as a volunteer, later joining the board of directors. The oyster industry in particular is one she looks toward as a local success, making a comeback from years ago as a new generation of growers take the helm. As Greenport evolves, treasuring and maintaining a sense of nostalgic past is something museum supporters embrace.

When thinking of what the water means to her, Kessler recalls her father choosing fishing in Shinnecock Bay over golfing. “Since I was three months old, I’ve been on the water,” she recalls. “My parents put us in bathing suits and we were there all day, whether on our bellies, crabbing or seining. It’s always been in my blood.”

The active harbor in use for pleasure boating, fishing off the docks, eating oysters on the water, and of course the history of Bug Light, which inspired the museum’s conception, are a small part of today’s nautical culture. Kessler says even just the simple, peaceful view fuels her soul.

Looking beyond the streets of Greenport during this year’s Maritime Festival, the vast history and modern culture of the working waterfront is a credit to those that do the work on both land and sea. Many women keep it alive, whether by captaining vessels, growing oysters, advocating for marine conservation, educating the general public through museum exhibits, artwork or storytelling. Remembering why the celebrations take place is essential in ensuring its longevity.