Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Merrily Reminiscing

My father always told me to take notes as I made my way through life. As a kid, I thought this idea was just adult nonsense. As an adult with children, however, I consider it to be wise counsel. Accordingly, then, I have taken notes my entire adult life, actually starting in my late teens. Since my children were born, though, the note-taking has accelerated. Just about everything they’ve done in their short lives is recorded. My basement library contains shelves upon shelves of children’s biographical materials—written notes, photograph albums, video tapes, mementoes, computer files, paper files, and so on.

I was recently looking through some of these materials in order to collect information for a spreadsheet that would tabulate all the voyages the children have made. I found everything that I needed, and I enjoyed reading the notes I had written and looking at the pictures I had taken. They brought back many happy memories. The children were so young then, and with the natural curiosity of youth they were learning about their world. The sea formed an important part of their travels and adventures, and I would like to think that they learned something from sailing across even small sections of it.

Most of their voyages took place aboard the vessels of the Cross Sound Ferry fleet between New London, Connecticut, and Orient Point, Long Island; many others took place aboard the Staten Island ferries in New York; and there were some occasional voyages on assorted waterways elsewhere in the eastern United States and Canada. It all started because at the age of six months Miss Karen could not tolerate the four-hour drive between her home in Nashua and her Nana’s house in New York. After two hours, she would loudly voice her frustration with the family car, and nothing could console her. Enduring her crying, sobbing, and screaming for half the journey quickly became intolerable for the rest of the family. So on Saturday, May 27, 1989, we made the two-hour drive to New London and embarked on the ferry New London for the hour-and-a-half voyage to Orient Point. After disembarking from the ship in Orient, we drove two more hours to Nana’s house. It worked out splendidly. When our little girl had reached the limit of her endurance for the automobile, it was time to get out, either aboard ship or at Nana’s house. No more crying, sobbing, or screaming. The sea restored peace to the family!

The sea also provided grist for my literary mill. In a series of spiral-bound notebooks that I call my Baby Books, I recorded details of the children’s lives, including their voyages on Long Island Sound and elsewhere. In June of 1990 I recorded James’ soliloquy as we arrived at the dock in New London:
Cars coming off ferry. Man open gate and cars come off ferry. Big truck come off ferry. Big truck make big bang. Where all the cars going? Man put hose together. Other man bring garbage. Man put garbage in dumpster. Man have to get more garbage.
The observations of a three-year-old! With the ship unloaded and ready to receive traffic for the next voyage, James continued:
Cars going on ferry. Daddy drive on ferry. All the cars have to go on ferry.
This narration continued as long as there was something for the children to watch. All the way to Long Island, James remarked on everything he and his comparatively quiet baby sister saw—lighthouses, buoys, fishing boats, cargo ships, and the vast expanse of the sea itself which seemed to intrigue them both. In later years this nautical realm would intrigue Steven and Michael, too, and all four of the children would make many happy voyages. A case in point is a crossing of the Delaware Bay aboard the Delaware enroute to their uncle’s house on Sunday, December 24, 1995:
The ferry left Cape May at 11:40am. This was the high point of the morning for the children, and it was their first time on the Delaware Bay. In commemoration of this occasion, they received free ferry coloring books.

All the children loved the ferry voyage. I took them on walking tours of the outside decks. The bay was quite choppy and full of whitecaps, with the wind and seas coming from the west. The ferry rolled quite a bit for the entire crossing. We really knew we were at sea! The kids loved it! They had fun trying to walk straight with the vessel swaying beneath them, and they laughed and giggled at their seeming clumsiness.

They wanted to see everything that was on the water. These sights included the Cape May Point lighthouse, several tankers anchored at Big Stone to the southwest, the open ocean to the east, the breakwaters off Lewes and Cape Henlopen, and the rough sea itself. The voyage lasted an hour and a half, and we all agreed it was much too short.
Closer to home, we made a night voyage from New London to Orient Point aboard the John H on Friday, March 1, 1996, with Steven and Michael:
This was the first time we had gone on the ferry at night. Our vessel left New London at 7:30pm. When Steven had finished his sandwich, I took him out on the weather deck for a look around the ship. He was fascinated by the night on the waterfront. He looked around carefully at everything and asked several questions. While we were outside, the ferry departed. As the ferry turned south toward the Sound, Steven noticed the flashing lights on the buoys marking the channel and the lights marking the turnpike and railroad bridges. As the vessel came to the open water of the Sound, he saw the two lighthouses that mark the entrance to New London Harbor. These fascinated him. He watched their strong bright lights for several minutes. Then he turned his attention to the great black mass of sea and sky that was beginning to surround the vessel.

Steven was intrigued by all he saw aboard the John H, and I thought Michael might share his interest. But this backfired. Poor Michael was nervous. Perhaps all the surrounding darkness disturbed him. I took him around the ship hoping he’d get over his fright and enjoy the voyage, though it became clear that he was very nervous about everything. He decided early that he’d seen enough. He repeatedly said, “Let’s go back inside and see Mommy,” who was amused by her baby’s reaction to the nocturnal voyage.

Steven came back outside for more sightseeing. He wasn’t nervous at all. It was a lovely night on the water. There was a slight southwesterly breeze and a low southerly swell that gave the ferry a gentle motion. The sky was partly cloudy with a waxing gibbous moon. Several stars were visible even in the nearly full glow of the moonlight. The sky overall appeared a medium gray. The water was a very dark gray, nearly black. Steven gazed quietly but intently into this darkly magnificent atmosphere.
A year later, on Friday, July 18, 1997, amid electrical storms on another night crossing from New London to Orient Point aboard the North Star, Michael overcame his nervousness:

A full moon shone through the clouds in the southeast. A low swell came from the same direction, and the North Star rolled gently. As the sky darkened, lighting became visible over both Connecticut and Long Island. Electrical storms seemed scattered throughout the region, and they intensified as the ship approached Orient Point. The flashes of lightning increased in frequency. With each flash the surrounding land and water became eerily illuminated nearly as bright as day, but only for a split second. The mystical black-and-white beauty of these illuminations was striking, but not frightening. There was no audible thunder. Steven and Michael found this display fascinating. They oohed and ahhed at the most spectacular lightning strikes, and they asked many questions.
A year after that, on Friday, May 15, 1998, another night crossing from New London to Orient Point aboard the New London yielded a lesson on running lights:
At 9:00pm the New London departed and sailed south into the increasing blackness of the night. James and Steven were excited to be at sea at night, and the weather was so good that we remained outside. At James’ insistence I explained how the running lights worked, what their colors meant, and how to determine another vessel’s course by the appearance of its lights. Both boys eagerly studied the lights on the ferries bound from Orient to New London as they passed us port-to-port.

James and Steven found these lights truly intriguing, hence the impromptu lesson. They learned about the red and green sidelights, the white masthead lights, and the white stern light, their arcs of visibility, and their positions relative to each other. They caught on quickly, too, as they observed passing vessels’ lights in addition to my explanations. Several other passengers also became interested in this subject and stood close by to watch and listen, too.
A couple of months later, on Friday, July 17, 1998, on a foggy crossing from New London to Orient Point aboard the North Star, Steven met the great man:
Just before sailing, Steven had the honor of meeting the Captain. Seeing him walk across the deck towards the bridge in his Merchant Marine officer’s uniform complete with an anchor insignia and four stripes, Steven ran over to him, caught up to him, and said hello and paid his respects. The Captain cheerfully returned Steven’s greetings, saying, “Hi there, Buddy! How are you doing?”

We sailed at 8:00pm. The fog remained over the water, and the ferry sounded its foghorn for most of the voyage. We remained outside on the upper deck. Steven and Michael were quite interested in everything going on aboard the ship. Both boys were impressed with the density of the fog and the severe limitation it placed on visibility. They liked hearing the foghorns of our ship and others and the fog signals of the buoys and lighthouses. They also got to peek into the bridge and see the picture on the radar screen.
As if meeting one great man wasn’t enough, Steven arranged to have all his siblings and me meet the Captain of the ferry Champlain on a voyage across Lake Champlain from Port Kent, New York, to Burlington, Vermont, on Monday, July 2, 2001:
During this eastbound crossing the Captain invited us up to the bridge. The children and I went up the narrow steps and gathered in the pilothouse and had a pleasant conversation with the Captain. His name was Steve Pond. He told the children how everything worked, about the lake and the ferry, and they asked many questions. He was very nice to them. When our visit to the bridge was concluded, the children all said “Thank you” and shook hands with Captain Pond. They were very polite. I was proud of them. I was also very pleased to be back on the bridge of a ship that was underway and going somewhere.
Captain Steve Pond also posed for a photograph with James, Miss Karen, Steven, and Michael on the bridge of the Champlain. A wonderful keepsake!

Farther south and closer to their Nana’s house, the children made many voyages aboard the ferries linking Manhattan with Staten Island. When they were little we would make one round trip of an hour’s duration, and then move on to something else. As the boys grew into their pre-teen and teen years, their interest levels also grew, and we often made three or four round trips in succession. These expeditions filled entire mornings. As one such outing on Saturday, March 4, 2000, demonstrates, they were time well spent:
We spent three hours riding the ferries back and forth between New York and St. George. We made three voyages aboard the Governor Herbert H. Lehman and three aboard the American Legion. The weather on the bay was exceptionally good for this time of year: blue sky, a few cirrus clouds, a northwesterly breeze, very clear visibility, and a mild temperature.

James was fascinated. He thoroughly enjoyed all aspects of the vessels’ operations. He asked many questions, observed everything very carefully, and used up an entire roll of film taking pictures. Steven and Michael also enjoyed these voyages. The three boys studied the loading and unloading of the ferries, watched the wake and propeller wash, watched all the harbor traffic, and saw all the famous sights. The maneuvering of the ferries and the variety of harbor traffic interested them the most. They enjoyed close-up views of several tugs and oil barges, dozens of smaller barges, and two large container ships of the Maersk Line. One of these was the Maersk Valentia. She was coming into port, bound for New Jersey, and she and the Governor Lehman passed at fairly close quarters. Later, another large vessel of the Maersk Line came out of the Kills and proceeded seaward. The boys found all of this very interesting. James took pictures, and they all asked questions about these grand vessels.
Two years later, on Saturday, April 27, 2002, we did the same thing in the same city, but there were differences:
We arrived just in time to board the American Legion. At the boys’ request, we went all the way forward on the vehicle deck so that we had front row seats, so to speak, for the crossing. This was great. We made four voyages aboard the American Legion, i.e., two round trips. We alternately stood on the bow, on the stern, and on the upper deck. But the boys and I all liked the vehicle deck best, whether forward or aft, because of its proximity to the water. Michael became transfixed by the sight of the water rushing past the hull. I, too, have always liked this, and I shared Michael’s enjoyment.
But changes had come to the city and the ferries in a terrible way. The vehicle parking decks had been fenced off, and the boats no longer carried cars and trucks for fear of a car bomb attack. Then there were police and police dogs everywhere. They patrolled the boats and the terminals and kept a wary eye on all the passengers, especially those carrying packages. The worst thing lay ashore, though:
The biggest change of all was the alteration in the skyline of Lower Manhattan. The World Trade Center was conspicuously absent. This was clearly visible from the ferry. It was impossible to not notice this. The boys asked me to point out to them exactly where the twin towers had stood, and I did. It seemed unreal, even though we were looking right at the buildings of Lower Manhattan and could plainly see that the World Trade Center was no longer there. A very sad note in an otherwise pleasant day.
Whatever may happen ashore, though, there is one thing that happily does not change. I have remarked in my Baby Books numerous times that:
It was great to be at sea again. It felt wonderful to stand on the deck of a ship again and feel the vibration of the engines under my feet and smell the salt air blowing across the water and feel it running through my hair. The exhilaration of going to sea again, even if just across the Upper New York Bay and back, is difficult to express. Suffice it to say that I found it a very pleasant sensation. Few things in life can beat a sea voyage.
While this will of course always be true, there remains the one voyage that was truly unique. On Thursday, June 24, 2004, during the ambitious family vacation we took in Newfoundland, we set sail to see something none of us had ever seen before:
We sailed at 1:00pm aboard the excursion boat Iceberg Quest. The Captain steered the boat north out of Twillingate Harbor and then turned eastward, past some headlands, and then across open water. An iceberg lay ahead of us, and the Iceberg Quest headed for it. A larger iceberg sat in the water to the northeast several miles from Twillingate, but that was too far to go in a two-hour voyage.

The children were all very excited to be at sea again, this time in search of icebergs. We stayed on the outer decks of the vessel, on the stern and on the house top. There was lots of motion—pitching and rocking.

The boat approached the iceberg, and it grew larger in our view. The crew estimated it to a hundred feet high. Eventually the boat reached the berg and slowed down and circled it at a close but safe distance so everyone could see it. The children were thrilled. We took lots of pictures because this was a unique experience for us. We spent some time admiring this iceberg, and then it was time to head back to Twillingate.

We had an anticlimactic but peaceful and enjoyable voyage back to port. The rocking and pitching got a bit rough in some swells coming in from the open ocean to the north. Much of the fog had gone away and the overcast had broken up. For a little while the sun came out.
Whether or not the sun was shining, going on a voyage with the children was always a wonderful experience. No matter what the weather conditions, sea state, or duration of the crossing, everyone in the family loved to sail. With the children all grown up and on their own now, I turn to my Baby Books and picture albums to merrily reminisce about the good old days. I am very thankful for the blessings of the written word, the photographic art, and the happy memories they preserve. Most of all, I am thankful for the blessing of four magnificent children. When I think of them, I think of Mother Teresa’s famous statement: “Every child is a gift from God.” How true!

Perhaps the last thought should go to Baby Michael, who now commutes to work in Boston by ferry. On Wednesday, August 17, 2005, after several hours aboard the new Staten Island ferries Samuel I. Newhouse and Andrew J. Barberi, I wrote:
Michael enjoyed this voyaging so much he wanted to do it all day. I agreed with him.

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