What is in John Garner's Pocket

Monday, May 10, 2004

By Don Sutherland

You don't really know a boat until she's hauled. Plying her trade on the water, her best half's submerged out of sight. We think we recognize her - "oh, there's Odin," or "Shelby Rose," or "Twintube" - but what are we seeing? The lines of the deckhouse, the shape and placement of the wheelhouse, the arrangement of the stacks? These are the parts known as the superstructure - "super," in this case, meaning simply "upon." It's a little like saying we recognize someone by his hat.

The boat's defining structure starts at the main deck and goes downward from there. What little we see of it is low on the horizon. There's the deck's line, along with a smattering of bulwarks. The rake of the bow, the shape of the stern, how and where flared in between, they all help a little in identifying the boat, but they still don't divulge what she's about.

What she's about is her relationship to the water, her reason for being. How she sits, how she rides, how she handles, are determined mostly down there. The size of the rudder, of the wheels or other propulsion devices - how she goes, whether for speed or for power or both, is ordained down there. Boats, just like people, keep their motivating forces concealed. Unlike people, boats can be hauled. And that's when we see what they're about. We took a walk through John Garner's yard on the Arthur Kill at Staten Island in April. Although small as shipyards go - about 5 acres, a pocket shipyard - we saw what plenty of boats are about, not only today but through history.

South Street South?

There were two schooners - the 1885-built Pioneer and the 1893 Lettie G. Howard - both from the South Street Seaport Museum. For similarly-rigged vessels, they couldn't have been more unalike down there. The Lettie has a deep hull, designed for the rough Georges Banks waters where men caught cod. Pioneer, by contrast, is nearly as flat as a billiard table, and draws only four-and-a-half ft. with her centerboard up. She was built to carry bulk sand along Pennsylvania rivers, and to beach herself to unload on the banks.

The hull of the Lettie looks like we think sailboats should, as familiar as the models on the ponds in parks: sharp at the bow for speed, deep at the stern with a sizeable rudder, to aid steering in light winds. The Pioneer, seen in the yard, is a surprise. Given her height, it doesn't seem there'd be enough of her under the water. Looking at that shallow hull in John Garner's yard, you'd think she'd be bound to roll.

But it's 119 years later, and Pioneer hasn't rolled. Obviously there's enough of her down there. She'd come to John Garner's yard for her bi-annual Coast Guard inspection, so she can keep carrying passengers. She also needed a cleanup, including sandblasting her steel deck, a new propeller shaft, attention to a few frames, and a lot of repainting. John Garner's shipyard, though quite compact, provides a range of repair and sandblasting resources, including a set of movable screens to confine the drift of the spent sand. The yard crew are what you'd expect, friendly and good-natured but without much time to chat - they've got your boat to look after.

The Lettie left Georges Bank in the 1920s, according to her skipper, Capt. Aaron Singh, and went after red snapper around Pensacola. An engine was added, and two small screws, and she was somewhat rerigged. She finally wound up in Gloucester, where purchased as the first acquisition of South Street Seaport, "to represent the kind of vessel that once called at the museum's neighbor, the Fulton Fish Market." That was in 1968, when the museum's vision included scenes much like those found at John Garner's a month or so ago. The Lettie carries passengers too these days, mainly thousands of schoolkids getting some on-site experience. That precious cargo calls for safe vessels, and the Lettie gets plenty of attention on the Tottenville shore. This visit to John Garner's, though hardly her first, was a tenth-year call for substantial work where and as needed. This included removal of "thirty-five to forty percent of interior, installing a new galley, head, a watertight bulkhead, eight bunks in the former fish holds. On the port side we replaced about five 24-ft. structural planks." The shipyard's crew doesn't include woodworkers, but the museum could provide its own. "John lets us stay longer than most yards would. Having someone like John, with his love for ships," said Capt. Singh, "keeps this project going."

So you can do what you need to a boat at John Garner's. Another prize from South Street, tucked under a tarp for a long-term restoration, was the wooden lighter Marion M, a modern boat by comparison - a mere 72 years of age. She's said to be the last wooden chandlery lighter in the country, even as Pioneer is the last iron-hulled merchant sailing vessel. The Marion's hull has a striking construction, with bottom planking perpendicular to the keel. An interesting sight to untrained eyes, and in context here at John Garner's yard, yet another lesson in marine diversity. Too bad the actual visitors to South Street, on a break from shopping at Pier 17, don't see the exhibits from so functional a view.

Preservationist Privateers

If the Garpo shipyard - the corporate name for John Garner's yard - is an extension of the formal museum at South Street, it's also an extension of another museum, an informal one. The North River Historic Ship Society is an association of private owner/restorers of classic boats, some of the most interesting in New York. Clustered around Pier 63, they include the lightship Frying Pan and the fireboat John J. Harvey. They also include three tugboats, which happened to be on exhibit at John Garner's yard during our stroll.

Near the piers for the Marine Travelift, where she's stood since late in 2002, was Hay-De, the oldest of the tugs in this historic diorama, and among the oldest tugs in the world. Built by the famed John Dialogue yard in 1887, she started-off as New York Central 13 (see "Save the Tugs, MN February 25, 2002). Iron hull, wooden superstructure, her construction is sometimes called "composite." She's slender as tugboats go, her original steam plant said to have raised under 100 horsepower. She has the "pregnant porpoise" lines typical of a tugboat hull, but early in gestation.

Around the same time Hay-De arrived at Tottenville for her painstaking restoration by Capt. Eric Fischer, who previously restored the Frying Pan, the Bertha arrived too. She was built in the 1920s as a logging tug up Canada way. Her present owner, Capt. Darren Vigilant, put up a hoop house, John Garner told us, to shelter her from the rigors of New York winters. "I don't know where he got it," Mr. Garner mentioned. "He built the large part - " over the wheelhouse " - himself. Took him months."

But you don't want the weather to come in while you rebuild all of the superstructure and the main deck to boot. The enclosure conceals Bertha's hull, a regrettable fact of our museum tour. For unlike most tugs, Bertha is flat - much like Pioneer - and draws only five ft. The reason, Capt. Vigilant reports, was the kind of logging she did. Finishing work in one stream, she'd pull herself ashore and cross the landscape, till reaching the next stream with its timber. Standing between Bertha and Hay-De - which Capt. Fischer has renamed her original NYC 13 - was a shorter-term exhibit, the tug Pegasus. Originally SOCONY No. 16 when built in 1906, her riveted steel hull was massive for her day. Capt. Pamela Hepburn, her last skipper as a working tug and current director of restoration, tells us this tug and its sisters were known in their heyday as the "Battleship tugs" for their mass. Massive or not, Pegasus is graceful and, if you have the eye for it, even beautiful from the waterline down. You'd never guess it, seeing her afloat. But from her beamy midships to her tapered stern, her underwater lines seem more a statement of artistry than nautical efficiency. But then, those two go together often, in the submerged, almost secret realms of nautical architecture.

The Accidental Museum

This hidden lesson was not on John Garner's agenda when he founded Tottenville Marina just south of the shipyard. He never intended to start a museum, and he didn't, really - we were just lucky to arrive at the right moment. By the time this reaches print, both Pioneer and the Lettie will have returned to their moorings in Manhattan, and the others bound for their home ports soon enough. What they leave behind at Tottenville is more symbolic. For who has less funding, in this day and age, than cultural institutions? Both South Street Seaport and the Tug Pegasus Foundation depend largely on grants and donations, and volunteers. Capts. Fischer and Vigilant are working out of their own pockets, on labors of love. Yet John Garner's prices, as evidence abounds, are such that even preservationists can afford. "John has given me a great rate," said Capt. Fischer. "If he weren't here, the nearest place I could go would have been Derecktor, in Connecticut." That might have put a crimp in the captain's plans, or at least the part of them dependent on his ability to commute between the restoration and his home in Manhattan.

If preservationists can handle a shipyard's rates, what does that portend for the working industry? It was the working industry that brought us in the first place, to this southernmost shipyard in the State of New York. The Big Apple's newest tug, which sailed into town just last August - the night of the blackout, to be exact - was what we'd come to see. She's the June K, the Kosnac tug, freshly returned from a record-setting winter.

The June had been working for weeks on the Connecticut River, busting her way, Capt. Kosnac reported, through ice sometimes a foot-and-a-half thick. In anticipation, Capt. Kosnac had ordered thicker plates forward than her builder, A&B Industries of Morgan City, normally specifies. The June sprang no leaks, but she still took a pounding. Was her keel cooler okay? Any frames bent?

"We could have hired a diver to look, " Capt. Kosnac told us, "but then what? If repairs were required, a diver couldn't make them."

So into the slings of Garpo's 220-ton Marine Travelift went the June. Out of the water she came and, with Mr. Garner at the controls, was driven across the five-acre yard. How do you move a 185-ton welded steel tugboat? Very carefully.

The June may be a new boat, but exhibiting her among some of the oldest would be a curator's daydream. The history of the tugboat? Its evolution over 117 years? Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, the Garpo Traveling Impromptu Museum sets it out before you.

For here is the June, all flat and angular, a different principle in devising hulls. It costs less to build square. Instead of the tapered stern of her forebears, the June is flat over the wheels, the better to send through a wallop of water. The June K. from the waterline down makes its own comment on the ages. These days we build plain but efficient.

The principle was echoed throughout the yard, where an assortment of large, modern fishing boats with comparable hull designs were being scraped, welded, hammered, painted.

"This was our first experience with the yard," said Capt. Kosnac. "Now that we've been through it, I wished I'd known about it sooner. Mr. Garner is a very agreeable man. He wants to work with you and do it your way. He performed so well, I was happy to pay the bill."

The Unexpected Shipyard

Tottenville Marina, Mr. Garner's first undertaking in the neighborhood, with 185 slips laid-out for pleasure boats, is just south of the shipyard, about half a mile below the Outerbridge Crossing. Except to mariners plying New York waters, and residents of Staten Island itself, the very name Tottenville sounds quaint, almost fictional. It hardly sounds like a neighborhood in the City of New York.

But like many of the names on the Island - including its own, Staten - Tottenville has Dutch roots from the time when New York was Nieuw Amsterdam. On the side of town opposite John Garner's is the Conference House, built in the 1600s, made famous in 1776 when Benjamin Franklin went there to negotiate with Admiral Lord Howe, in unfulfilled hopes of preventing the American Revolution.

There's a lot of history in this waterside town. It includes shipbuilding. There were once three shipyards in a row along John Garner's property and neighboring land. They're remembered mostly for construction of barges, though wooden tugboats are said to have been built there too. But it's been a half-century since vessels of consequence were made anywhere in the Big Apple. Subsequent users of the property included Standard Oil, and Amboy Towing. The latter was eventually bought by Moran, Mr. Garner tells us, which moored boats there for some years. But it was all a long time ago. "When I bought the marina property in 1977," Mr. Garner told us, "I had a lot to do. It was completely overgrown. A wasteland. It was all woods, derilect cars, wrecks. Having spent years as a dockbuilder for others, Mr. Garner was well qualified to design and construct his own. Located ideally at a confluence of waterways, Tottenville Marina seemed destined for success once it got going. The shipyard came later, when Mr. Garner, in partnership with Ken Poesl of Ken's Marine, in Bayonne, bought the nearby property in 1991. Residential overdevelopment hadn't blighted Tottenville as it had much of mid- and northern Staten Island, and the new parcel included something most homeowners couldn't use: 7.5 acres of land underwater, in addition to the 5 acres upland. Not be a great site for a barbeque, but fine for a shipyard.

Incremental Growth

John Garner's yard - which is how it's known throughout New York, regardless of its corporate appellation - was a long time coming. Even before the Garpo property was acquired, the marina property could still get eclectic. Back in the mid 1980s, there was a canal tug that had been built in the same Dialogue yard as NYC 13, but even earlier - 1883 - tied to an old drydock just off the marina. For the better part of a year, the old Eileen Ann remained there under part-time restoration. Her owner was broke, but thought he'd try restoring the boat anyway.

Though the rent he paid is no longer recorded, it wouldn't have been much. It included the use of a 16-foot aluminum skiff, with one oar and a hole in the bottom. It was enough to keep him scraping until the last money ran out.

The Eileen was sold and taken north, spending a winter on the bottom of the river. Bought by a new owner, raised, and given another name, she's undergone a long, serious restoration ever since, at Kingston. Hindsight's not as clear as they say, but still, one could wonder - if there had been no John Garner's marina twenty years ago, would there be an Elise Ann Conners today? But John Garner's yard steered toward its present course when its first Travelift arrived. And to hear John Garner tell it, something must have been smiling on the occasion. "I heard of a 150-ton Travelift coming up for sale in Virginia," Mr. Garner recounts, "and went down to Norfolk for a look. I offered $100,000 for it, plus a 10 percent commission. They accepted. I called Joe Hughes about renting a barge to bring the rig up, turned out he already had two in Norfolk. We split the cost of bringing them up - it cost me six thousand to bring the lift here. I'm now in the process of selling it, after eight years of use, for $85,000." Why sell his Travelift? To make space for the boats brought ashore by his newer Travelift, the 220-ton job he brought in about a year and a half ago.

The Incredible Shrinking Harbor

Once crusted with shipyards, the shores of New York have steadily been downzoned for residential development, sometimes by government agencies unregulated by city planners. Large vessels like the 310-foot ferryboat Barberi, under repair for months after its notorious crash last November, still need the large drydocks of a Caddell's. Where do you fix a 250-ft. oil barge? Who's to undo the effects of a Kill Van Kull allision, on Caddell's own doorstep? The port of New York, like others nationwide, would grind to a halt without shipyards. Yet rules and regulations, government initiatives and public misunderstanding, seem stacked against shipyards, with little regard for the consequences.

The industry itself has had to adapt, and the pocket shipyard is part of that adaptation. The encroachment of civilization, if that's what it's called, is felt well beyond just the maritime business. In some places laws had to be passed to protect farmers against lawsuits by new homeowners, who disenjoy the perfume of manure. You'd think such laws would be unneeded, as common sense should prevail: if you build a house next to a cow pasture, or a shipyard for that matter, what should you expect? But common sense and law are not always bedfellows. In New York, you may not exceed so many decibels when you do what you do.

Being there first is no excuse. And as residences start coming closer to John Garner's yard, someone could find, to his or her surprise, that hoses for sandblasting do make a hiss. "The lady in that house - " Mr. Garner points toward a clapboard frame building about 150 ft. north of his sandblasting shields, " - is in her eighties, I think, and has lived there her whole life. She's never complained. Neither have those people - " he waves generally in the opposite direction, "though over there are some newcomers. They make complaints." Mr. Garner has found himself prevailed upon, as residents look around, to clear up certain wreckage just offshore. He would probably comply, happily at that, were it not for two things. It isn't his wreckage, and he doesn't own that part of offshore. The marina has already defended itself successfully against one lawsuit, but this raises a question: is defending against lawsuits what yardowners should be doing?

Whatever he's doing, John Garner likes doing it. "I'm sixty-seven now," he told us, "I expect to be at this when I'm eighty." And there, Mr. Garner finally arouses dischord from the mariners. With what's in his pocket, they seem to feel, they'd prefer he be doing this when he's 160.

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