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News and Stories about the Waterways of New York and New Jersey

IndustryNYC 10 BoatsWorking Waterfront

Women of the Waterfront: Mary Habstritt

Despite gains across society and many sectors, women have historically been, and continue to be, underrepresented in the maritime industry. Recent press has highlighted this and surveys are currently underway to better understand opportunities and the make-up of women in the maritime industry, including this survey from the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association (WISTA).

In honor of Women’s History Month, the Waterfront Alliance had conversations with three women who work in the maritime sector in the New York–New Jersey region: Sarah Pennington, Mary Habstritt, and Genevieve Clifton.


Meet Mary Habstritt, Museum Director & President of LILAC Preservation Project.

Please describe your current work on the waterfront with the LILAC Preservation Project, and why LILAC is a special ship.

Lilac is the oldest and most intact lighthouse tender of only three that survive in America. She is the only one with her original steam plant and our organization is restoring her to run her on steam again. She is a unique place to learn about the system of aids to navigation and about steam propulsion. During 2020, LILAC was closed to the public due to the pandemic, but volunteers have continued to do maintenance and restoration work. Much of my time supporting that has involved developing COVID-19 protocols to keep volunteers safe and then enforcing and monitoring compliance. I’m also trying to sort out how we can re-open the ship to visitors and keep everyone safe.

LILAC recently received maintenance at Caddell Dry Dock and Repair Co. in Staten Island. What was it like to work in a modern shipyard on a historic ship?

We were only at the shipyard for a week, but made the most of their services, including their riggers and crane, and got a lot done. Our historic ship attracted a lot of attention, not only from shipyard workers but crews on other vessels being worked on at the yard. We conducted a number of tours and made new friends.

What are some of the many other things you manage to literally keep LILAC afloat?

I do a little of everything! I raise funds and write grant proposals; research the history of the ship to support restoration; write interpretive materials; schedule, train and communicate with volunteers; plan exhibits and other cultural programs; and purchase supplies. I even get my hands dirty assisting with maintenance and that makes a nice change from the administrative work.

How do historic ships add value to our public piers, and what challenges have you overcome for LILAC to achieve that goal?

New York is a city of islands, but New Yorkers can forget that we have always been and still are dependent upon our waterways. Historic ships embody that maritime heritage and the educational programs we offer make visible the hidden work of the Harbor. Many visitors to LILAC have never seen a buoy and don’t know how important these and other aids to navigation are to the flow of commerce. We get to explain the Coast Guard’s vital but little-known work of tending these aids.

Waterfront development has also forgotten about ships. Too many piers redeveloped for recreation have eliminated mooring points and other critical elements that allow ships to tie up.  Dredging is no longer done and silt has built up at public piers so that the water is too shallow for ships to visit. There is no Harbor Master to assist ships in locating appropriate berths. Many berths are managed by people with no maritime experience, so they do not understand what ship operators need or expect. The decreasing number of available berths that are appropriately equipped, publicly accessible and welcoming has meant that educational and cultural vessels have stayed away. Fleet Week and other maritime festivals have been diminished or disappeared.  LILAC has been lucky to have a berth in Hudson River Park, but it has involved large investments in the pier infrastructure and working around design flaws that other ships were not willing to take on.

What do you enjoy doing for fun on the waterfront?

Even though this is part of my job, I love telling kids about my ship! I miss the visits of kindergartners who each took a turn at the ship’s wheel. I miss the light bulbs that went on when I explained a ship’s draft in relation to water depth and they used a chart to calculate if there is enough water to ensure LILAC does not hit bottom.  And, later the cries of “Hi, Captain Mary” from the pier when they next visit the park warm my heart. I miss my little buddy Benjamin who is studying to be the ship’s engineer and used to learn a new ship term each time he visited with his grandma.


Image Credit: Mary Habstritt

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