A Life in the Harbor with Luis Mendelez, New York Harbor School Graduate and Marine Conservation Leader

Posted March 31, 2016

This post is published in interview format, reflecting a conversation with The New York Harbor School‘s Peter Matthiessen Award for Leadership in the Marine Environment winner, Luis Mendelez. Mr. Mendelez is a New York Harbor School graduate, assistant waterfront director for New York Harbor Foundation and School, and active Captain for New York Water Taxi. His story is inspiring and now part of the new Billion Oyster Profiles, which will tell the story of the Billion Oyster Project through the people who have shaped and been shaped by it. The Moore Charitable Foundation and founder Louis Bacon are proud to partner with the school, the BOP, and to be associated with next generation conservation leaders such as Mr. Mendelez. Congratulations, Luis.

Louis Bacon Blog (LBB): When did you attend and graduate from the New York Harbor School?

Luis Mendelez (LM): I was part of the first graduating class. I attended from Fall of 2003 and graduated in 2007.

LBB: How did you learn about the Harbor School?

LM: Murray Fisher walked into my third period class in 8th grade; I believe it was my math class. And he took a few minutes to talk about the school he was starting up, called the Harbor School. One of the things that he said was that we would be out of the school building once a week, at different parts of the Harbor, and that stuck with me. I never was on a boat, never was anywhere near the Hudson; the only time I saw the river was when I was going over it, taking the J train into the city. And so I was like, oh, this sounds great. He asked at the end of his presentation whether anyone was interested in the school and like four kids raised their hands and I was one of the four, and he took us out in the hallway; he spoke to us.

I don’t even think I knew that Brooklyn was on an Island, that Brooklyn and Queens were together. As far as I knew, everything was connected. I saw the river but I didn’t know too much about it. I mainly stayed in Brooklyn.

The summer before I started Harbor School I joined this program at the East River ApprenticeShop. And we would row a Whitehall gig in Greenpoint, from Newtown Creek we rowed out into the East River, and we rowed up or down the East River doing water quality testing. One of the times we went out, one of the instructors talked to us about the geography of New York — “That’s Manhattan, this is Queens” — and that was the first time I was like, “Oh, that’s how this works.”

IMG_3511-2LBB: What stands out most about your experience there? Why was it special?

LM: The on the water activities were what made Harbor special. As a student, in middle school, and in my transition to High School, I struggled a lot in classes, in my academic classes. But when I was on the water, it was a whole different feel. I actually knew what was going on, I was quick at picking things up, and at a certain point– well, you always keep on learning, but once I had a sense that I knew what I was doing, I would make sure to pass all my information down to my peers, my other classmates, make sure they were getting everything, that they were understanding everything that was happening.

One of the most key moments was definitely on [South Street Seaport’s 1893 sail training schooner] Lettie G. Howard. I sailed on it and I loved it so much I became an intern; every summer I signed up for Summer of Sail, a week long program — that’s actually how I met Aaron [Singh, head of Harbor’s Vessel Ops program and Luis’ mentor, boss and friend.] He was driving Lettie and we were doing overnights and day sails. But then I spent a week traveling with Aaron from Pier 79 all the way to Philadelphia. That was… heading out to the Atlantic, sailing through the night, seeing no lights because we’re out on the ocean, seeing dolphins… that was while I was a rising sophomore, so that was a pretty big experience for me, a pretty big deal.

LBB: What are the most important life lessons/career skills you gained at school?

LM: Definitely leadership. Working on tall ships, and all the other programs that were offered at Harbor School like the rowing program, MST (or Marine Tech as we called it back then). Back then there were no CTE programs. Our first year we had a field class, Intro to New York Harbor, where we would go to different parts of the Harbor, do water quality testing; we’d also go to different parks, too– Prospect Park, Central Park; we’d do the same thing; water quality testing; talk about the interaction between the Harbor and manmade structures.

LBB: Is there a teacher who stands out for you? What did they teach, and why do they stand out?

LM: All of them. To be honest, all of them. The thing I grew to appreciate about Harbor School was that you weren’t calling teachers by their last names — it wasn’t Mr. Arezzo, Mr. Heller, Ms. Fraioli; it was Roy, Noah, Ann — and all the teachers seemed to be very — and it’s still true to this day, because most of them are still around, still part of the Harbor community in one way or another — they were so invested, they believed in the mission; you can tell, when they talked, or got us excited about going out into the field — it was genuine. It wasn’t like they were forced or they were just there to work or earn a paycheck or whatever. So because of that, it drew me in even more. That helped shape me into the person I became. I remember thinking during my senior year that at some point in life I would want to come back and help teach, and that’s exactly what I’m doing now

LBB: What have you been doing since you graduated from Harbor School?

Luis-2-1LM: Well, I got a job with New York Water Taxi when I was sixteen. I was a rising senior. So as soon as I graduated Harbor School, I decided I wanted to work in the [maritime] field, I liked what I was doing. I just wanted to work, at that point. Half a year later, a few months later, I decided I wanted to go for my Captain’s license, because of what I was doing and most of the captains at Water Taxi all knew that I was capable of doing it, they were kinda like pushing me for it. I decided I wanted to become a captain, got my Captain’s license at the age of 19. Actually spent my 19th birthday in the Captain course. Celebrated with those guys, too. Became Harbor School’s first captain. At that point I decided I should probably go back to school. I went to Kingsborough and took some marine technology classes, but I kinda already had my license and felt like I should focus on something else. I’d always had an interest in science, so I switched my major to Biology. I came back and spoke to Roy [Arezzo, who had been his Living Environment teacher at Harbor, and who is now the head of the Aquaculture CTE program] about it. Roy gave me some advice, and then after that at some point Roy and Brendan had a conversation about me; Roy knew that I was interested in biology and a job opening came up for a lab technician in the aquaculture department with Pete. So they gave me a call and asked me if that was something I’d be interested in. And I said yeah, I would love to go back and work for the school, sounds amazing. So I got that job, and also as a captain for the school. At that point I kinda didn’t know what I was doing in the lab, so I picked up a lot; the seniors that year helped me out a lot. The junior class, too. We were all learning together. Over the next few years I became the hatchery manager, so I helped Pete in the lab, and I was also responsible for growing the algae and the oysters, setting the oysters. And I also started picking up oyster shells for the Billion Oyster Project. Well, at that point it was mainly for aquaculture class; we needed the oyster shells to set the oyster larvae on. Then after that I shifted over to just working with Aaron doing vessel operations.

I transferred my credits to LaGuardia and I’m still in school now, took some semesters off, figuring out the plans. I’m trying to piece all my experience and my interests together. I’ve started doing diving, finishing my course with Lenny and Zoe; I’ve got Vessel Ops, did Aquaculture for a few years… Once I find a way to tie everything together, that’s where I’ll end up heading.

LBB: Tell us about your connection to the water and harbor around New York, What is one of your favorite places?

LM: My favorite place in the Harbor would be tough to say. I’m all over the Harbor. Well, every time I’m on the water– I work for Water Taxi on the weekends– my favorite thing is just being in the Harbor in general. Especially during the winter, there’s not a lot of boats out, and it’s very peaceful and tranquil to be out on the Harbor when there’s not that much traffic, it’s just you, I start thinking about how populated New York City is but yet I’m the only on this boat, with the open Harbor around me. It’s the opposite of the J train, the opposite of my morning commute. Sometimes I reflect, I see where I’m at now in terms of where I used to be, what I thought I would be when I grew up. I never thought I’d be on the water, driving a boat, being a captain, teaching…

My favorite spot wouldn’t be a pier or anything like that. It’d be kinda in the Deepwater Range, where you have the view of the Brooklyn Bridge, the entrance of the East River, you see the lower Manhattan skyline, you have the Statue of Liberty behind you, you have Jersey, you have Governors Island, you see Brooklyn– you see everything. That’s my favorite part of the Harbor. Deepwater Range. You see everything. The panoramic views are amazing.

LBB: What is your involvement with the Harbor School currently?

LM: I am the assistant waterfront director for New York Harbor Foundation and New York Harbor School. I’m in charge of maintaining and operating all the Habor School vessels, I’m in charge of maintaining the waterfront, the piers, the ramps, gangways, making sure everything is OK, I’m in charge of safety. I also help out with Work Based Learning for Vessel Operations, help out with internship placements; I go to sites, talk about Harbor School, get them interested in working with us; I’m in charge of placing the interns and assisting Aaron with monitoring and making sure they’re doing a good job at their intenship sites, which is great for me, because I love working on the water, and now I’m helping the Harbor School students find jobs– especially the ones that, like me, love working on the water.

LBB: If you could give one piece of advice to current Harbor School students what would it be?

LM: Take advantage of everything Harbor School has to offer. Especially now– Harbor School is offering so much. With all our different CTEs. I feel like Harbor students shouldn’t just say they’re part of one CTE and focus on that– or even if they are, they should take as much advantage of that program as they can. So that might mean staying after school, working with other CTEs, being a part of other clubs– there’s so many things going on after school and before school. As long as you’re involved, you’ll learn so much. There are so many talented people at Harbor School and in the Harbor Foundation. Gotta do cross-training.

LBB: What do you enjoy most about your current job?

LM: Working with students actually. I mean, I drive a boat seven days a week and that’s amazing and I never get– till this day I’m not tired of it. But to be able to have students driving the boat and to be able to have students working on deck–! I tell them all the time especially when they come out on the weekends– they love it so much they come out to do maintenance on the weekends; sanding, oil changes, draining out the bilge–which is miserable work, but they do it, they don’t complain. I tell them all the time, they help me out, I feed off of their energy, they’re so excited, and that makes me excited. That’s my favorite part.

Luis Mendelez is a New York Harbor School graduate, assistant waterfront director for New York Harbor Foundation and School, and active Captain for New York Water Taxi.