Photos by Randee Daddona
Growing up in the fishing village of Montauk, beneath the shadow of her shark-hunting father, Pat Mundus created her own legacy.
Pat Mundus arrived late to our interview on a bright morning in mid-May, wearing sunglasses and sandals, her preferred accessories these days. “Sorry I’m late,” she said and admitted that she forgot it was a Tuesday. That’s how time moves in retirement, especially in a maritime community like Greenport, New York, where water, like the days, flows clean and timeless.
But Pat isn’t actually retired; a good mariner never is. Part of the reason we were docked on the 57-foot Surprise, which in 2019 she sold to her neighbors along with her charter business, East End Charters, was for Pat to visit the boat with whom she shares much of her history. So Pat, fashionably late or right on time, sat barefoot on the starboard side of the boat, her toes dangling.
She left home for the first time when she was 17. She put her name on index cards on those “cheesy” yacht club bulletin boards in Montauk, which in the 1970s was not the tourist trap and haven for twentysomethings with hangovers, but a sleepy fishing village with a shark-obsessed culture.
Pat’s Montauk was one where artists like Andy Warhol lived atop the bluffs and where the valleys were comprised of middle- and lower-class folk, such as the Munduses, who ate fish nearly five days a week; meat was a luxury. It was a place where yachting or sailing, which is as prevalent today as moon jellies lining the beach, was what rich kids from the Hamptons did, or so said her father, whose boats she’s been walking on since she could stand. When people today ask her how she gets around a boat so well—which is the type of question that’s loaded with misogynistic undertones—she says she doesn’t remember: How does anyone remember how they learned to walk or talk?
After graduating high school in just three years, she worked with professional crews to deliver boats from the East Coast and the Caribbean. Until July of 1974, students at merchant marine academies nationwide were exclusively male, with The Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point becoming the first to part with tradition. Of the 15 women who joined their class of 333 students in 1974, eight women graduated in 1978. A young Pat Mundus, seated at a sailor’s waterfront bar in Bermuda in the middle of spring,
happened to be in the right place at the right time. She struck up a conversation with a stranger, airing her frustration about working on charter yachts. Not about the lousy pay, which was $35/week, or the long nights spent watching the sea from above deck (she loved admiring the cosmos), but about the fact that anytime something difficult happened on board she was stuck on the wheel and left to watch one of her male contemporaries fix the problem. She didn’t realize it then, over a cold beer at a sticky bar, that the stranger she was griping to was the captain of a Mobil oil tanker, or that she was raising feminist issues, commenting on the lack of opportunities for women at sea.
“You don’t have to take that shit anymore,” the stranger told her. “They have these maritime academies that train officers on ships. You should do that.”
So she did, but not just like that. Nothing happens just like that.
It took her a few weeks to get home, research the then-nascent program at Kings Point, and decide that she was ready for the interview. She eventually drove the hundred miles on the Long
Island Expressway, but while driving, something inside her—call it instinct, call it fate—told her to turn around. She had just returned home from the freewheeling Caribbean lifestyle, and the thought of entering Kings Point, where cadets didn’t receive weekends off and where fraternization between the sexes was strictly discouraged, produced in her a dubious consternation. There was no other explanation for it: She got off at the next exit and pointed her car back to Montauk. Back to where a legacy, though not her own, was taking shape.
There’s no escaping the shadow of Frank Mundus. As the Steven Spielberg blockbuster Jaws turns 46 this year, the mythology of the man who inspired Capt. Quint—the husky, incorrigible shark hunter played by Robert Shaw—grows larger every day. Frank Mundus is to Montauk as Bruce Springsteen is to New Jersey. Not a day goes by when Pat isn’t asked about her father and the way in which he’s influenced her or Montauk, where he shattered one fishing record after the next. But influence isn’t always synonymous with righteousness, nor is a legacy meant to be unbroken.
By the time Pat had gotten comfortable with her return home, she was accepted into SUNY Maritime’s program at Fort Schuyler—which was a state military academy as opposed to the federal one at Kings Point, and therefore a notch lower as far as rules go—and she was determined to give it a go this time.
One evening, Pat asked her father in front of his friends if he’d help pay her college tuition. Rising from his dining room chair, amid a cornucopia of liquor bottles, he fetched two quarters from the pocket of his gray work pants, jammed them under the ceiling molding, and in his hard-as-nails voice said, “I bet you don’t make it.” Had Pat been male, the bet likely would never have been issued.
Donna Spahn Ames, 66, recalled her Fort Schuyler roommate as something of a rule breaker, a person who followed those that made sense and disregarded those that didn’t. Naturally, this distinction is difficult to assess no matter the place, but such was the fate young women faced at the time: Accept the status quo or broker your own path.
Donna was coming in as a sophomore from the more rigid Kings Point program and was paired with Pat, who, as a freshman several years younger, already had sailing experience. “It was a great marriage in an adverse world,” said Donna. At the time, the laws permitting women into Fort Schuyler were accepted unwillfully and with protest.
Facilities for women, such as separate bathrooms and changing rooms, were non-existent. Females were forced to change in the auditorium. A few women, including Pat, thought this was unfair and one day went to the admiral demanding the situation be fixed. Standing at attention, their fingers shaking and sweat lining their foreheads, they told the admiral that they had heard of something called Title IX. Like the law admitting women into merchant marine academies, Title IX was only a few years old, but it was incumbent upon universities to abide by it to continue to receive federal funding. “Within months, we had bathrooms, locker rooms, but we had to demand it,” Pat said.
This was the first time Pat spoke out, though she didn’t call it that then. “Coping,” she said. “We were just asking to be accepted.”
Before she had even attended Fort Schuyler and was previewing the grounds during an orientation session, Pat met a discreet, shaggy-haired guy who didn’t meet the aesthetic demands of his regiment. He wore black sneakers instead of spit-shined shoes; his tie was loose and disguised by his sweater. After one of their classes together, she went back to his room where he had a mini-fridge full of beer, and as they sipped on some away from the watchful guise of the officers, he told her that all she had to do was fake it.
That was easier said than done, especially when acceptance for men was different than that for women. The word, like an Italian aria, could sound impactful but be ephemeral: Acceptance, for females like Pat and Donna, meant having to endure frequent torments by male students
“You’re just here looking for a husband,” “You’re taking a job away from a breadwinner,” the men would yell.
“We are the breadwinners!” the women would yell back.
They weren’t though. Not yet.
Still, they sought to carve out their own reputation. There was one day, Donna remembered, when her roommate brought her golden retriever to school. During the morning muster, when cadets had to stand outside at attention in their uniforms while upperclassmen inspected their rooms for cleanliness, Pat got the dog to don a cap and sit at attention alongside the rest of the students. “We got in so much trouble for that,” Donna said.
The trouble was worth it. After all, Pat had placed a bumper sticker on their dorm door that read “Question Authority.” She had a reputation to uphold.
Pat is frequently asked about her father but not about her mother, a “tiny firecracker of a woman who was brought up on a farm in New Jersey by strict parents” and played the violin and piano. Perhaps it’s her mother, Janet, to whom Pat attributes her bohemian spirit—Pat wanted to go to art school before deciding on SUNY Maritime—and from whom she first learned the maxim that she now tells those she mentors: “Remember, as a gal you’re going to work twice as hard as everybody else and get only half the credit.”
When Frank Mundus was bringing back fish from the sea, Janet was cutting and freeze-wrapping fillets. Hours spent cutting and wrapping, cutting and wrapping, “like nobody’s business,” Pat remembered. When Frank was busy setting up the boat for a charter, Janet was at home tending to the chores and the demands of Pat and her two sisters. What Pat inherited from her father might’ve been superficial; what she inherited from her mother was a sense of quiet industriousness: Stay out of harm’s way and try to do the best job you can.
Of her graduating class of 11 female cadets, she was the only one who went to sea; the others went into engineering, marine transportation or pursued graduate studies.
For her first duty of cadet observation, Pat reported to a captain named Blacky Bristow—his name like something out of a fable—who was drunk and reeked of cigarettes and booze. She offered him her letter of recommendation, and taking it, he refused to look her in the eyes and hissed, “I don’t like blacks and I don’t like goddamn women. The only reason you’re here is because the company sent you here.”
She didn’t speak up, not like she had done at Fort Schuyler. Stay out of harm’s way. Try to do the best job you can.
By the time she left that cadet training position, after about a month, her biceps were full of bruises from him grabbing her arms and shaking her.
For the next 17 years, Pat worked on oil tankers as a deck officer for SeaRiver Maritime. She was sometimes the only woman on a ship, and sexism became less prevalent but never really disappeared. The men who were captains or first mates on these ships were of a generation that had never sailed with women who were professionally educated. They simply assumed she was going to fail.
In 1981, on her second ship, while leaving the Houston Ship Channel entering the Gulf of Mexico, Pat had the departure watch with the difficult job of navigating around the thousands of oil rigs scattered through the area of transit. The captain left Pat alone on the bridge to figure it out—to learn by doing. It was well after dark and ahead, “like a constellation of stars, were all the lights of the oil rigs,” Pat said. “In some locations the chart said there were exposed pipes with no lights, scary.” Still, the captain trusted her—expected her—to use radar, bearing and range, and running fix to calculate their position and speed in relation to the other ships on the water. The captain eventually came to the bridge to observe, and though she was, as she put it, “shitting bricks,” she was managing alright. “He was waiting for me to call for help,” Pat said. When she finally cracked the coordinates, the captain turned off the radar. “Now let’s see you do it,” he told her. Again, he was waiting for her to give up, to implore his help.
She didn’t. But when she managed to get this one right, too, just as Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula faded from view, she didn’t receive credit. The oil tanker pressed onward.
James Brown once sang, “This is a man’s world / But it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl,” which Pat Mundus paraphrased as we talked that spring morning. Her version goes: “It’s a man’s man’s man’s man’s world.”
Insofar that men have and continue to dominate maritime culture, Pat has made it her mission to become an advocate for younger women. Since retiring from ships, she has helped three women receive their captains’ licenses and develop their skills, including her niece Luna Crowley, 22, who is studying medicine and envisions a future in which she could fuse medicine and sailing. Another woman, Leah Sweet, who came to Pat as a tall ship sailor and rigger in 2014, is now a professional skipper on a racing yacht.
Though there has been an increase in female merchant mariners and yachtswomen over the years, there aren’t many women who are both. That Pat comes from a fishing village and, by her own estimation, is an old-fashioned traditionalist, makes her mentees’ tutelage that much more intensive.
In 2019, Luna spent nine months in the Caribbean with Pat on Surprise, where they sailed to a total of 34 islands. Before embarking on the trip, Luna didn’t know how to tie a bowline. So Pat, the pragmatic, original do-it-yourselfer that she is, cut a 24-inch piece of line and had Luna tie knots whenever they were in the cockpit and on watch. “After a week I could do them blindfolded and behind my back,” Luna said. She also learned how to sew, spearfish and navigate. “She was teaching me how to be a woman in a predominantly male field,” Luna said.
Often, Pat had Luna mark their location every 30 minutes using traditional dead reckoning, plotting latitude and longitude on a paper chart. During one trying session, Pat made Luna stay out on watch and mark their location every 30 minutes using the manual set and drift technique of ancient mariners. Luna was cold, tired and craved the comfort of her bunk. She didn’t voice her irritation to her aunt—she wouldn’t dare—but kept her head down and suppressed her emotion.
After Luna took her licensing exam, passing with flying colors, she called her aunt to thank her. “It felt like the light bulb went off,” Luna said.
It was not unlike that time in the Houston Ship Channel where Pat had spent hours under quiet scrutiny by her supervisor while calculating their position in the minefield of oil rigs. The difference here is that Pat knew her niece would make it.
Pat Mundus may never be as famous—or infamous—as her shark-hunting father, she may never see her likeness appear in a major motion picture, but she has helped carve a channel for future female mariners to follow, and that’s as good a legacy as any.