Monday, October 7, 2013

More Days on the Water

One day spent with Michael on the water in Boston was just not enough. It would not get me through the summer. Happily, more days on the water were soon forthcoming.

On a visit with my parents on Long Island at the end of July, my father decided that we should ride down to the barrier beaches and go for a sail aboard the Moon Chaser. Our family had done this several times over the years, and everyone always enjoyed it. Primarily a night time party boat, the Moon Chaser sedately ventured forth two afternoons per week on sightseeing voyages from the Captree fishing boat basin. She followed the channels of the Great South Bay past Sexton Island and the Farm Shoals and then ran along the north side of Fire Island toward Ocean Beach and Point o’ Woods. The highlight of this scenic voyage was the famous Fire Island Light, one of the most historically and navigationally important landmarks along the American East Coast. And so we spent a bright and sunny Wednesday afternoon, the last day of July of 2013, embarked on the sober Moon Chaser, enjoying the sublime beauty, peace, and quiet of the waterways along the South Shore of Long Island.

Back in New Hampshire, Miss Patty had been so impressed with what Michael and I had told her about the Eagle that she now wanted to see this grand ship herself. On Sunday afternoon, August 4, 2013, then, Miss Patty and I travelled to Portsmouth where the Eagle was docked for the weekend and was once again open for public tours.

What we came upon at the State Pier at first dismayed us: no place to park, a two-hour-long wait in line, no place to sit down, and a security guard who all but told us to get lost. This was vastly different from the Eagle’s dockside arrangements in Boston! Well, Miss Patty found a place to sit down while I parked the car elsewhere and walked back. Then the Coast Guard intervened. After a brief word about Miss Patty’s walking difficulty, and also after seeing her using a cane, a Coast Guard Auxiliary officer called for a golf cart. This vehicle sidestepped the two-hour-long line and delivered us to the Eagle’s gangway. There, two Coast Guard Academy students welcomed us and assisted Miss Patty onto the ship. Once aboard, we walked the decks slowly and carefully. Additional Coast Guard personnel stood by and answered questions, offered explanations, assisted at the stairways and on the forecastle deck, and distributed souvenir portraits of the vessel. As there was only a loose schedule, we took our time so Miss Patty could see everything—the masts, the rigging, the woodwork, the navigation bridge, the helm, the fantail, the signal flags, and so forth. This was a very special occasion for her, visiting a famous, beautiful, and historically significant ship from her native country. I enjoyed it as well, visiting the Eagle for the second time and in a different seaport.

Despite my initial misgivings, the visit turned out exceptionally well. I must give credit to the Coast Guard personnel whom we encountered that day. Whether commissioned, enlisted, auxiliary, or students, these ladies and gentlemen extended the most professional hospitality and courtesy to us. They represented their ship, their service, and their government very well indeed.

Returning to the commercial side of shipping, I again went to visit my parents on Monday, September 16, 2013. Disembarking from Amtrak’s Shore Line in Bridgeport, Connecticut, I walked to the nearby ferry dock and awaited the arrival of the next boat to Long Island.

The Park City is one of three diesel powered vessels operated by the archaically named Bridgeport and Port Jefferson Steamboat Company, which has been crossing Long Island Sound since 1883. She entered the harbor quietly and maneuvered alongside the dock adroitly. In fifteen minutes she discharged all her Connecticut-bound vehicles and passengers and took on the Long Island-bound traffic. At 12:00 noon she eased away from the dock and then transited the channel, passed between the twin breakwaters, and set out again upon the Sound. Her voyage to Port Jefferson would take an hour and fifteen minutes and cover fifteen nautical miles.

I stood alone facing forward on a promenade deck one level down from the bridge as the Park City crossed the Sound. I had last travelled this route some twenty years earlier, in August of 1993, with Miss Patty and the children. That had been an experiment, a possible alternative to our usual New London to Orient Point crossing. It proved impractical, though, largely because of the difficult drive through Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport. Taking the train to Bridgeport this morning instead made the journey to the ferry much more pleasant. Prior to this experiment in 1993, I had last sailed through this area in 1978 aboard the tug Charger. I thought of those voyages as I gazed upon the Sound. In the distance in mid-Sound stood the Stratford Shoal Light, an important navigational aid that dated to the 1870s, and still an important waypoint a century and more later on the Charger’s and Park City’s voyages.

As the Park City drew nearer to the Stratford Shoal Light, her running mate Grand Republic did likewise from the opposite shore. The two vessels passed port to port at an ample distance, both from each other and from the Stratford Shoal. The sky, which had been overcast in Bridgeport, was now changing shades. A bank of gray stratocumulus clouds remained over Long Island; intermittent off-white cumulus highlighted the increasing blue sky over the water; and blue punctuated by streaks of pure white cirrus reigned over Connecticut. As I witnessed this gradual metamorphosis I contemplated a verse in the Psalms: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1). To one trained in Latin, though, the nuances of Saint Jerome’s
Vulgata convey the thought even more artfully: “Caeli enarrant gloriam Dei, et opus manus eius adnuntiat firmamentum” (Ps. 18:2).1 Whether applied to the stars and moon by night, to the sun’s daily transit, or less typically to meteorological conditions, this thought captures the essence of the various faces of the sky. While theologians debate fine points of doctrine, the sky over the sea—the firmamentum to the ancients—speaks silently to the navigator and asserts both unequivocally and incontrovertibly that a Supreme Being, a Creator-God, is truly in charge of the universe.

As the Stratford Shoal Light and the Grand Republic receded into the distance, the Park City approached the twin sand spits and breakwaters that form the entrance to Port Jefferson Harbor. The stratocumulus blanket over Long Island was by this time opening up and allowing bright sunshine to illuminate the seascape. Brilliant blue water delineated by white sandy beaches and dotted with the white hulls of anchored sailboats filled the estuary. It was a melancholy sight, though. The ferry’s arrival in this beautiful natural harbor, a million dollar view from the mansions on the surrounding green hills, signaled the end of my voyage. The Park City eased up to the dock in the center of town. Across the wharf from her rested the third ship of the fleet, the P. T. Barnum, securely moored and undergoing maintenance work on her main vehicle deck.

I disembarked with mixed feelings. I was very happy to have made the voyage, but very sorry that it had to end. I could have stayed on the ferry and crossed and re-crossed the Sound all day! But I needed to be practical. It was now time to walk to the Port Jefferson station and get the next train for Mineola.

Two days later, I visited the waterfront again, this time on the West Side of Manhattan. On Wednesday, September 18, a bright sunny day with a completely cloudless blue sky, I went to Pier 66 at the foot of West 26th Street to see the lightship Frying Pan. Now part of a dockside restaurant, this historic vessel had for many years guarded the Frying Pan Shoals off Cape Fear, North Carolina. Located about 175 miles southwest of the better-known Cape Hatteras, Cape Fear and the Frying Pan Shoals lie near the mouth of the Cape Fear River, on which are situated the seaports of Wilmington and Southport. I had called at Wilmington once when posted aboard the Mercury in 1980. So long ago! I was young then, but the lightship was already old and retired. Since sold by the government to private interests, she reposed quietly in the early morning sunlight at her new home.

The Frying Pan shared the pier with the historic fireboat John J. Harvey and an Erie-Lackawanna Railroad caboose. This is not really so incongruous. In this neighborhood’s heyday of commercial shipping, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad used Piers 63 and 66, the Erie-Lackawanna used Pier 68,2 and railroad tracks interlaced the cobblestone streets that lined the waterfront. After the railroads and the shipping lines went bankrupt and the transportation industry shifted to containerization, these piers and many others fell into disuse and neglect. For about 25 years they stood as urban blight, dangerous and dilapidated structures lining the Hudson River. In the mid 1990s this situation began to change. Today, these newly renovated and refurbished piers form part of the Hudson River Park, a landscaped promenade paved in flagstone and brick with magnificent views of the river and recreational facilities for families with children.

Pier 66 with the historic Frying Pan and John J. Harvey preserves the seafaring character of the area. Just to the south, Pier 64 offers shaded benches, picnic tables, and fishing. Pier 63, actually more of a wharf that parallels the river, continues the park setting of Pier 64, as does Pier 62, which has a merry-go-round for children. Next come the famous Chelsea Piers, 61, 60, and 59, all of uniform size and shape, which form the new Chelsea Piers Sports and Entertainment Complex. Featuring indoor sports facilities, a golf driving range, theatres, restaurants, ballrooms, small boat berths, and more, these piers were a century ago the heart of New York’s commercial waterfront. Of particular interest to me was a large historical display of vintage black-and-white photographs that lined a waterside promenade. Explanatory captions accompanied the pictures. Additionally, a plaque honoring the accomplishments of Mayor George McClellan summarized the neighborhood’s history.

One of these accomplishments was the Chelsea Piers Project. Opening for business in 1910 after several years of construction, the Chelsea Piers became the main western terminus of the transatlantic passenger and cargo trade. Designed to be architectural showpieces, they served as magnificent gateways to New York. Used by the Cunard and White Star Lines among others, they hosted such luminaries as the Mauretania, the Lusitania, the Carpathia, and the Olympic, and were the intended destination of the Titanic. In later years, when the passenger fleets moved uptown to larger facilities, the Chelsea Piers continued to serve medium-sized break bulk cargo ships. As late as 1970 they were still used by United States Lines.1 Their careers thus lasted about 65 years. Then followed the 25 years of disuse, deterioration, and eventual rebirth.

I appreciated this display of the Chelsea Piers’ history, as well as the entire neighborhood’s rehabilitation and reuse. The views across the sun-bathed Hudson to New Jersey and south to Staten Island were breathtaking. The beauty of the new park and renovated piers felt inspirational. While adjacent to the teeming streets of midtown Manhattan, they nonetheless formed a world set apart from the city, an oasis of peaceful and quiet repose.

Before returning home, I had one more spot to visit. Walking north alongside the river to West 35th Street, I came to Pier 76, one of the largest of the old West Side piers. Unlike the others, Pier 76 had not been transformed into a park, restaurant, or sports complex. Instead, signboards indicated that it was used by the police. Towed cars were brought there and stored inside the big warehouse. Also, the mounted police units kept their horses there. To most outward appearances, though, it looked pretty much as it had in the old days with its imposing blue fa├žade and oversized garage doors facing both the waterfront and the street. Clearly, this structure was intended to handle big shiploads of cargo! The most impressive feature of all, though, was a name that had never been removed. Set into the big blue walls and stretching over the tops of several garage doors high above the street were enormous white letters that after all these years still proudly spelled out “United States Lines.”

This great name was truly a sight to behold, a proud reminder of the glory days of the United States Merchant Marine, an era when American products were exported in American ships from New York to countries around the world. United States Lines was and remains an iconic name in maritime history. A vast fleet of ships that carried passengers, freight, and mail across the oceans and between continents made up United States Lines. My grandparents had sailed with this company in 1955, taking the fabled United States to Europe and returning aboard the less famous but still significant America. Finding the company’s name still emblazoned across the front of a pier that its ships had frequented was an event to savor!

Another event to savor took place the following day. In the afternoon of Thursday, September 19, my parents and I again drove down to the barrier beaches. We stopped briefly at Oak Beach and Captree to admire the Fire Island Inlet, but the highlight of the outing was visiting Fire Island itself.

The great Atlantic Ocean stretched out endlessly before us. Its dark blue water contrasted sharply with the light blue sky in the bright sunlight. The horizon where the sea and sky met was clear and distinct, a perfect meteorological condition for celestial navigation. Lines of position taken from the sun on this horizon would yield a fix accurate within a tenth of a mile. There were probably mates aboard ships at sea taking sun sights as I thought of this. One such vessel was just visible on the horizon. Years ago I, too, had sailed past Fire Island on the way to and from New York. From the State of Maine and the Comet I had looked shoreward, just as I now stood on the beach and gazed seaward. The Atlantic was lovely, dark, and deep.4 Its beauty beckoned me as it had beckoned others before me. My grandparents had sailed past Fire Island numerous times aboard several ships on their voyages to and from Europe. As had so many folks. The commercial fleets of Cunard, White Star, American Export, United States Lines, and many others that had called at the West Side piers had sailed past Fire Island on their transatlantic journeys as well, and their navigators had used the both the sun and the nearby Fire Island Lighthouse to fix their positions. Once again, the past and the present showed an interesting way of intersecting on the eternal sea.

Fittingly, I spent my last day of vacation on the water with Michael, my youngest son. As we had done in late July, we again boarded a ferry at Long Wharf in Boston for a voyage to the Boston Harbor Islands. It was another bright and sunny but windy day, Saturday the 21st of September. We stood at the bow rail and felt the rush of salt air and water as we sailed aboard the Island Expedition to Georges Island. We spent the afternoon exploring historic Fort Warren, built in the middle 1800s to defend Boston Harbor, and enjoying the magnificent panorama of blue water, green islands, and the storied Boston Light. The irony was unmistakable—a sublime and peaceful scene viewed from the ramparts of a structure built for battle. I thought of the old Roman proverb: si vis pacem, para bellum—if you want peace, prepare for war. Ironic and sad, but repeatedly proven true. We returned to the city in the late afternoon aboard the Island Adventure. This voyage took us under the Long Island Bridge and past the outbound tanker Maritime Anita, a vessel of particularly impressive dimensions when viewed alongside from a diminutive ferry boat. Across the harbor in East Boston, the lightship Nantucket still rested at her refitting berth, emblematic of another beautiful day on the water.

One of the great blessings of my life has been to spend many beautiful days on the water. Whether at the shoreline or actually aboard a ship at sea, the effect is the same. There is something about the sea that soothes the soul, brings peace, and invites one back again and again. People sometimes carp about getting too much of a good thing, but I think it’s impossible to have too many beautiful days on the water!

1 I say this with all due respect to the magnificent English of King James’ translators. The main difference is that the two languages have different nuances and therefore express the same thought in their own unique ways. Neither one makes the other wrong; on the contrary, both versions contain supernal truth and beauty of expression. The difference in the numbering of the Psalms stems from differences in Catholic and Protestant approaches to the scriptures. It’s a small point, but one nonetheless indicative of the unfortunate divisions in Christianity.
2 The historical data on individual piers comes from two sources: City of New York Five-Borough Atlas, Fourteenth Edition, Atlas No. 2088A, n.p.: Hagstrom Company, Inc., 1972, p. 9; and “Tourist Manhattan,” Atlas Plate 15, insert in The National Geographic Magazine, July, 1964. Despite the name “Tourist,” this really is a very high quality and richly detailed map.
3 City of New York, loc. cit.

4 I love these verses from Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” in The Poetry of Robert Frost, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967, p. 224-225:
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
I have thought of these lines on many occasions when the day’s outing to the seashore was ending and it was time to return home and tend to the responsibilities of negotiating heavy traffic, feeding children, keeping house, going to work, etc. I often wanted to prolong the visit to the oceanfront, but the promises that I felt obliged to keep, i.e., my domestic responsibilities, always called me away.

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