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Women’s History Month: An Interview with Paulina Czernek – A Masters Mates and Pilots International Union Representative and former Statue Cruises First Officer

By Rear Admiral Wendi Carpenter (U.S. Navy Retired) Executive Director of the Phillips Trust

I recently spent time at the Great Lakes ILA Conference in Tampa, FL and while there, I caught up with Paulina to begin the conversation.  We finally finished up our interview this past week via some email conversations and exchange of information, after she returned from more travel.  I had early on decided face to face, or even an uninterrupted phone call was simply going to be way too hard.

Paulina was born in Krakow, Poland, the nation’s second largest city located on a very large river.  (Was the eventual draw to maritime in her destiny?)  She moved with her mother to Queens, NY at an early age, and later to New Jersey.

Paulina indicated that she applied to college at SUNY Maritime because it was among the only places where she could live on campus.   But when asked about the draw of the water and any thought of a career on the water, Paulina replied, “No.  I knew nothing about boats.  I pretty much walked in blind.”

She did thrive there, however, on land and at sea. Paulina detailed her life at the college this way: “At SUNY Maritime, during the Summer Sea Term, I was a division officer in charge of 100 cadets, including sophomores, juniors and seniors. I made sure that all duties were performed on time and in the order that the chief mate had requested.  I was responsible to make certain all the cadets in the division arrived on time to formations and I oversaw the proper appearance of the division.”  Paulina added, “Looking back on it now, I know I was given was a great deal of responsibility at a young age, especially for a young woman in a male dominated industry.  But, I always loved the challenge and it gave me a lot of satisfaction – doing an important job and doing it well.”

“For three summer sea terms, I worked aboard the training ship Empire State, standing watch and performing clerical duties.  While we were in Poland, I was very pleased that I could add value by serving as the Polish translator for the captain.  Doing that gave me great satisfaction and self-confidence.  I possessed a unique skill set that was important to the function of the ship and the Team.”

Paulina was employed for quite a while on the water with Statue Cruises, based in New Jersey.   Asked what that was like, Paulina answered as any other sailor might.  “Well – It’s not a 9-5 job, that is for sure,” she said, smiling broadly.  “No sitting inside in the protection and comfort of an office.  You’re outside all day in the elements – nice or nasty.  It’s definitely a unique office view breathtaking I would call it.  Imagine seeing beauty of the New York skyline and the Statue of Liberty while cruising around the Harbor.  But it’s also great, because on the water around New York, you meet people from all over the world.  That was exciting.”

She went on to explain, “As first officer, I ensured the crew performed on-board functions safely, at all times, and adhered to procedures.  We also wanted to be great at “customer service,” so we did our best to make the passenger environment as pleasant as possible.   I was always at the gangway while the boat was being loaded and unloaded to ensure passenger safety.   Whenever we were underway, my role was to be in the pilot house with the captain, serving as a second set of eyes.  If there’s an incident on the boat, the first officer handles it.   He or she operates as the point of contact between deckhands and the captain.  First officers are trained to steer and dock the boats in case something happens to the captain.  I also trained the deckhands in good seamanship.  All first officers have engine room knowledge and can interact with U.S. Coast Guard inspectors during inspections.  You must be able to “do it all.”

That’s a fitting way to describe it.  “Doing it all.”  Young people out there looking for a great career, please take note.   You must learn to do it all, you get responsibility at a very early age and you meet challenges every day and, at times, each moment of the day in rough weather or when other issues arise.  Plus, the office has a very “unique view.”  No two days are alike.

Paulina started at Statue Cruises as a deckhand and was promoted to a First Officer only sixmonths later.  She also worked at New York Water Taxi in Brooklyn as a Senior Deckhand for three years.   Impressively, Paulina attained a captain’s license while she worked at New York Water Taxi.  She departed before she was afforded the opportunity to serve as a captain there.  Paulina also logged many days on the water, as she worked on dinner, commuter and tour boats like the American Princess and highspeed ferries like Seastreak.

I asked Paulina to talk about the shift she made in her career the past few years.  Paulina shared: “Now I serve with Masters Mates and Pilots, as an International Union Representative, with the Atlantic Maritime Group (AMG), dealing with contract negotiations and visiting the members during their work day.  I especially love visiting New York Water Taxi (NYWT) (the union’s newest companies to be brought onboard).  NYWT is where I first started my journey on the water.  I loved being on the water, but I realized after fifteen years of operating vessels in NY Harbor, it was time to take my leadership skills to a higher level.  I truly enjoyed and miss working with all the different boat companies and the crews in that capacity.  However, since I know well so many of the crew, I love even more what I do as a Union Representative.   I have a unique opportunity to assist them on many levels.  Also, in this new position I am able to travel and meet more people.  And who doesn’t love to travel?”

Paulina, as we close out of conversation, please tell us, what is your fun time like?

Paulina replied, “In my spare time I love sitting by the pool or on the beach when the weather is cooperative. In the winter time, I have been known to hold the couch down watching movies and sitting with my two dogs.  And wait for the next adventure at work.”  Smiling again, she added, “I don’t usually have to wait very long for a new one to emerge.”