Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Day on the Water

The past and the present have an interesting way of intersecting. Shortly after 7:00am on Saturday, July 27, 2013, I met my son Michael in front of South Station in Boston. Our itinerary for the day included voyages across Boston Harbor, visits to historic ships, visits to historic shoreside locations, and many happy hours visiting with each other. Under the Creator’s clear blue and sunny sky, then, we set out for the Eagle Hill neighborhood of East Boston.

The historic marker on the low stone wall in front of the house at 78-80 White Street informed us that this was once the residence of the famous shipbuilder Donald McKay. A legend in his own time, Mr. McKay designed and supervised the construction of clipper ships at a shipyard in East Boston in the mid-1800s. The notation on his wall summarizes his career very briefly. Volumes on library shelves elaborate on it more fully. Between these two extremes, Mr. McKay’s name and work are immortalized in brick and stone elsewhere in East Boston. Clipper Ship Wharf still stands on the waterfront; Clipper Ship Lane abuts the old shipyard property; the Donald McKay School educates the rising generation; and Piers Park overlooks the Inner Harbor with pavilions honoring his work and memory.

Michael and I walked from the house to the park. A beautiful facility with immaculately manicured lawns and brick walkways, it commanded magnificent views of the harbor, the surrounding waterfronts, and the downtown skyscrapers. In the distance to the south, airplanes took off from Logan Airport and headed west over the city. Directly in front of us, tugs with barges made their way between the docks and the open sea. One tug and barge unit reposed at anchor slightly to our left. My son and I sat in the McKay Pavilion to have a snack, enjoy the view, and discuss shipping and history. He asked me many questions.

Had I ever come into Boston on a ship? Yes, I explained, on two ships, actually. The first was the old State of Maine in May of 1976. She tied up at the Commonwealth Pier in South Boston. Then I joined the Wilkes at the Braswell Shipyard, also in South Boston, in July of 1980. Braswell went out of business and shut down while the Wilkes was there. Like the McKay shipyard off to our right, it receded into the past and took many people’s livelihoods with it.

Did I know how tugs and barges work? Yes, I answered. I had spent the summer of 1978 working aboard the Charger and the Interstate 50 of the Interstate and Ocean Transport Company. As we watched a tug with a loaded barge pass in front of us, Michael asked about the operation. How were the two vessels lashed together? How does the crew steer the tug with the barge attached? What cargo do barges carry? Do they go out on the open ocean? And as another tug with an empty barge lashed to its starboard side came along, Michael asked about towing positions and freeboard. He wanted to know everything!

Another pavilion in Piers Park honored the various ethnic groups that had immigrated to the United States and settled in East Boston. Many of these folks had found work in the McKay shipyard. Appropriately, then, a painting of one of the yard’s masterpieces, the clipper ship Flying Cloud, stood prominently on display. At the time of her construction in 1851, the Flying Cloud was the largest and fastest merchant ship ever built, more ambitious even than the previous McKay masterpiece Stag Hound. On her first voyage the Flying Cloud set a new speed record on the New York to San Francisco route, then continued transpacific and eastward via the Cape of Good Hope and returned to New York with a load of Chinese tea. She paid for herself in this one round-the-world voyage, an unparalleled commercial and technical success. About three dozen clipper ships followed the Flying Cloud from the East Boston shipyard. Many of them, including such luminaries as the Lightning, the Great Republic, and the Sovereign of the Seas, became world-famous in their time and have been remembered for their achievements ever since.1

From Piers Park Michael and I walked to the nearby Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina. At the end of a medium-sized wooden dock the lightship Nantucket lay in repose. With her white-lettered bright red starboard side facing away from the dock, she was plainly visible clear across the water from downtown Boston. She was designed to stand out in the distance, and she did. The product of an era vastly different from the clipper ship years, the Nantucket had long stood guard over the treacherous Nantucket Shoals, warning merchant vessels away from danger as they traversed the traffic lanes leading to and from New York. Retired and withdrawn from service for many years now, the Nantucket had been acquired from the government by the privately owned United States Lightship Museum and was undergoing restoration for preservation as an historic vessel. My children and I had seen her previously in Oyster Bay, Long Island. She had been parked there for a time while her fate was being decided. Then she was towed to East Boston on May 10 & 11, 2010, and has remained there since.2 It was good to see her again! I had the feeling of revisiting an old friend as Michael and I stood on the dock admiring this great ship and reminiscing about happy times in Oyster Bay.

Leaving the Nantucket behind, we doubled back past Piers Park and walked along Marginal Street toward Maverick Square. This route took us past some of the dilapidated old docks of the East Boston waterfront. Long a busy shipping site, these docks have now lain in ruins for decades, a sad waste of valuable urban real estate. With its views of the harbor and downtown skyscrapers, this land seemed to have tremendous potential for residential use. Happily, though, at the foot of Lewis Street, a new building was under construction.

Long before railroad and motor vehicle tunnels connected East Boston with downtown, ferries carried the passengers and freight across the harbor. Much discussion about reviving such a service and even expanding it to connect East Boston with South Boston and Charlestown has taken place, and the federal government has committed money toward building new vessels.3 Michael and I wondered, then, if this new building would be a ferry terminal. It was certainly in the right place for one. Until ferries started crossing the harbor again from East Boston, however, we would rely on the subway. And so returning to Maverick Square, we rode through the Blue Line’s subaquatic chambers to Aquarium station, walked the short distance to Long Wharf, and boarded the ferry Rita for Charlestown.

The voyage aboard the Rita through the Inner Harbor to the former Navy Yard in Charlestown took maybe fifteen minutes. But it was a very pleasant fifteen minutes, with the sun bright in the mid-morning blue sky. The Nantucket’s white-lettered red hull stood out prominently on the East Boston shore line, and as the Rita approached the docks in Charlestown two other historically significant vessels came into view. The Constitution, of course, has long been a special feature of Boston Harbor. This weekend, though, she had a neighbor. The Coast Guard’s famous sailing ship Eagle shared the dock with the Constitution. She was open over the weekend for public tours, and Michael and I were going to visit.

My first glimpse of the Eagle took place at sea in June of 1976. I was embarked on the old State of Maine which was following the tall ships’ race from Bermuda to Newport, Rhode Island, and carrying the press corps for this event. To enable these newsmen to take photographs of the various sailing ships and write stories about the race, Captain Hill deftly maneuvered the State of Maine from one tall ship to the next, always maintaining a safe distance between the vessels and remaining downwind of them so as not to spill the wind from their sails. Since that occasion, I had seen the Eagle many times in Boston, New York, and her home port of New London, but I had never gone aboard.

I knew her history pretty well, though. Built in 1936 in Hamburg, Germany, she began her long career as the Horst Wessel, a training ship for the German Navy. Taken over by the United States in 1945, she became the Eagle for the next phase of her career, training personnel for the United States Coast Guard. In June of 2011 she observed her 75th birthday by returning to Hamburg where she was received as an honored guest by both the city and the German government.4

Under less auspicious circumstances, Michael and I enjoyed a wonderful time aboard the Eagle in Charlestown. We puzzled over her extensive rigging, studied her elaborate woodwork, and admired her military orderliness. A Coast Guard officer engaged us in conversation and tried to interest Michael in attending the Coast Guard Academy in New London. On the pier again, I pointed out aspects of the Eagle’s hull structure to Michael, most notably the elaborate curvature of the fantail stern, an artistic feature of ship designs of a bygone era.

From Charlestown we sailed once again aboard the Rita and returned to Long Wharf. Another short but very pleasant voyage. As we had done earlier, Michael and I sat in deck chairs on the stern, away from the more crowded cabin and with open views of the harbor. As the Rita passed the North End of Boston, I showed Michael the Coast Guard building on Commercial Street, the place where I had taken the exams for the chief mate’s license in the summer of 1984. Almost thirty years ago! Tempus fugit, indeed.

At the now crowded and noisy Long Wharf, Michael and I signed up for our next voyage of the day and then had a light lunch while we waited. At his suggestion we took the ferry Island Expedition to Spectacle Island in the Boston Harbor Islands chain. About 200 other people had the same idea, so it was a full boat. Nonetheless, it was a lovely 25-minute voyage from the downtown area past the working piers of South Boston and into the cluster of small green islands at the entrance to Boston Harbor. Within sight of the downtown skyscrapers yet seeming a world apart from them, Spectacle Island offered hiking trails and scenic lookouts laid out amid lush verdant hills. It was an oasis of peace and quiet surrounded by calm and restful blue water. It soothed the soul. Michael and I followed a trail partway around the island and up one of the hills and enjoyed spectacular views of the expanse of water and additional islands in all directions. Recreational boats dotted the adjacent seas, and ferries hurried to and fro within the archipelago. In this beautiful location time seemed to stand still. The unfailing westward movement of the afternoon sun clearly indicated otherwise, though, and all too soon we needed to hike back to the dock. We agreed that with a picnic lunch and a set of binoculars we could have done a full day’s outing on Spectacle Island. Perhaps next summer!

Returning again to Long Wharf aboard the Island Expedition, I positioned myself in the best possible photographic vantage point and with the newfangled digital camera recorded the principal shipping activity around us. There was the Nantucket, of course. Also the Roseway, a two-masted, red-sailed school ship for high school and junior high school students gliding gracefully into port. And then there was the Cosco Genoa, a 900 or so feet long container ship of the China Ocean Shipping Company, moored and working cargo at one of the South Boston piers. After another very pleasant and thoroughly enjoyable 25 minutes on the water, the Island Expedition arrived back at Long Wharf, and it was time for us to disembark.

During our absence on the water and ashore on Spectacle Island, the city had become very hot, crowded, and noisy. People milled around everywhere. No doubt many of them had come into town to see historical sites. Michael likes to call Boston “America’s cornerstone” because of the city’s richness in history, particularly colonial and revolutionary history. This is borne out in the North End neighborhood where he had attended school.5 Tourists parade through the North End to see the Old North Church, the statue of Paul Revere, and the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground. From these sites, it’s a reasonable walk over the Charlestown Bridge to the Navy Yard where the visitors would then tour the Constitution.

While this is very commendable, I daresay few if any of these same tourists would venture across the harbor to East Boston and visit the Donald McKay house, the site of the clipper ship building yard, the Nantucket, or Piers Park. Yet all this is historical, too. I like to think of it as history off the beaten path. In a city that is practically saturated with history, the out-of-the-way shipping history stands out as the most fascinating of all. Great historic ships like the Flying Cloud, the Eagle, and the Nantucket not only connected Boston with the rest of the world but also connect the past and the present. Likewise, humble ships like the State of Maine and the Wilkes connect the family’s past with its present. Similarly, ferryboats like the Rita and the Rookie, aboard which Michael commutes daily to work, connect the family’s present with its future.

As I rode the bus back home to Nashua later that afternoon, I stared out the window but saw in my mind’s eye the events of my day on the water. A special day spent in a unique setting with—best of all—a beloved son. I liked it so much that I wanted to do it all again!

1 A.B.C. Whipple, The Clipper Ships, Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1980, p. 55 & 61. Chapter 2 of this book, comprising pages 46 to 71, contains a wonderful capsule summary of Donald McKay’s career, the Flying Cloud’s initial voyage, and a vintage photograph of the East Boston shipyard. See also for a roster of clipper ships that he designed and built.
2 For complete information see
3 Jeremy C. Fox, “BRA approves ferry plan to connect East Boston, Charlestown, South Boston,” Sept. 18, 2012, available at; and Edward L. Glaeser, “A bridge to East Boston—via ferry,” Boston Globe, available at
4 Dirk Langeveld, “Coast Guard Eagle Visits Birthplace in Hamburg,” in New London Patch, June 6, 2011, available at For historical and technical information about the Eagle without the ethnic and political vituperation that permeates most American accounts of the ship, see
5 Michael attended the North Bennet Street School, where he studied woodworking and furniture building, starting on February 7, 2011, and graduating on May 31, 2013.

No comments:

Post a Comment