What do you get when you spend 19 hours at a Fourth of July party onboard a tugboat in NY harbor? A sunburn, welts from hurled bagels, about 12,000 calories and some incredibly good memories, Don Sutherland found.
Officially it's Independence Day, but everyone calls it the Fourth of July. Its inalienable rights accrue to the common man, whose life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness necessitate keeping things simple. And is any form of theater simpler than a fireworks dispay? No plot to keep up with, no dialog to follow, just plenty of action. America feasts during many of its holidays, but with varying complication - where Thanksgiving is an elaboration of side dishes and stuffings and sauces, July Fourth is plain barbecue. Sauces? What do you call mustard and ketchup?
Independence in the U.S. is embodied by mobility, as citizens by the millions saddle-up the flivver and hit the Interstate, some, for foolish reasons, never to return. Before there were cars, though, there were boats. In a way the simplest transit - play your cards right, currents and tides might do the work - boats were the first grantors of independence. Wherever the species started, it was boats that spread us around, and remained to carry us away again whenever independence was threatened. Today, of course, there's nowhere left to run, but boats still echo their declaration of independence. They don't follow rails, or require pavement. Ancient and usually wise rules are their requisites, smarts and self-responsibility are the requirements for those who run them - the adult side of independence.
The Fourth of July is thus a fitting day for boats in review, maybe the best day of the year for it. Some people in New York thought so, and they planned a parade. Judging from advance notices, it would be the biggest flotilla since the Spanish Armada.
We were invited along by Henry Marine, a company whose present form originates in a divorce and a towboat as part of the settlement. To that boat, the Robert IV, Dorothy Julian added
the 1400hp model-bow Dorothy J. in 1999. Both boats have kept busy assisting such firms as Weeks Marine and Hornback in shallow-draft operations, and performing most of the towing for the New York City Department of Transportation (that is, the Staten Island Ferry).
"It's the first time since 9/11 that an event like this isn't under high security," Dorothy told us. "My nephew Jerry is with the Marines, and he's just back from Kuwait and Iraq. My son Robert [after whom the tug is named] is in from Kansas, where he's with the Air Force. So we're able to combine the July 4th celebration with a welcome-home for the troops. We're a small company, and I have the privilege of saying we were taking the day off."
We cast-off from Tottenville Marina
at 0830, heading up the Arthur Kill. Ahead for inspection awaited the entire west shore of Staten Island the industrialized New Jersey shoreline opposite, the whole upper bay, and the basins and ports and piers of most of maritime Brooklyn. It would be New York Harbor in a nutshell.
It also became apparent that the day, atmospherically speaking, would be oppressive. Hazy, humid, temps in the 90s. A typical bummer summer day, the type that makes New York landlubbers sticky and grumpy. There was a breeze on deck on the Dorothy J. as she steered for the Brookllyn Navy Yard and the start of the parade, and maybe on the piers and esplanades where the masses would come to gape.
Since the Armada
The theme of the parade was to "celebrate our working harbor," according to the announcement, "with participation by tugboats and workboats, barges, salvage boats, ferryboats and water taxis, dinner cruise, sightseeing and river excursion boats, charter boats of all types, sail or power, official vessels including FDNY, USCG, police, military, buoy tenders, DEC, NOAA vessels, fishing boats, both commercial and charter, historic working vessels of all types, SeaTow, USCG Auxiliary, other safety vessels, educational and ocean/river research vessels, sail and maritime training vessels, pilot boats, crew boats, dive boats, selected cargo vessels and cruise ships, including coastal cruisers, entertainment boats and barges, sailing schools and other/unusual vessels." All they left out, it seemed, was shipwrecks.
For all its emphasis upon workboats, the event was no marine-industry display. The sponsors were land-based, one of a number of groups and administrators pursuing visions for the New York waterfront. Not all agree with the others' visions, nor are they all mutually complimentary.
New York harbor became a Klondike of sorts, after containerports lured transocanic cargo to outlying districts and undid the maritime monopoly on central waterfronts. No boat ever tied-up where Battery Park City now stands - before the World Trade Center went up, the land it's built on didn't exist. Beneath the old finger piers citywide was gold, ready for panning. In one form, it was housing - everyone loves a wtrfrnt vu. Lest the condo developers overindulge, agencies arose to assure open spaces, public spaces, parks where folks can jog and stay fit.
There assuredly is a maritime industry in New York harbor, one of the largest in the nation. But besides those who represent it officially - the American Waterways Organization, for example - plenty of folks who work outside it champion the mariner's high-efficiency, low-emissions, low-cost contributions to urban living. They want to keep that going. At the same time, though, homebuilders and parkbuilders speak with authority, about the design and operation of the waterfront to come. Some are even fortified by legislation.
In the case of the July 4 parade, the sponsor's credit went to the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, an outgrowth of the Municipal Art Society and described as the locus of independent waterfront groups, local and otherwise. "This celebration, first proposed by Michael Fortenbaugh of the Manhattan Sailing Club and being brought to life by maritime choreographer John Doswell, will build upon the success and the energy of the Governor's Island Flotilla and celebrate our working harbor."
A few days after the parade, Mr. Doswell told us the "maritime choreographer" part was meant a bit tongue-in-cheek, though anyone who's watched the historic fireboat John J. Harvey docking knows it takes fancy dancing. Mr. Doswell is one of the owners.
"It was really just for the working boats, so we didn't ask for the Sailing Club's direct participation. I'm a private boater, but I'm also a big fan of workboats. MWA picked up on it, hoping to get some funding to make it a bigger thing." Besides organizing parades, Mr. Doswell has been a co-chairman of Manhattan's Community Board 4, a director of the North River Historic Ship Society, Co-chairman (with third-generation real-estate developer Douglas Durst) of Friends of the Hudson River Park, and Friends of Pier 84. "Friends of Pier 84 is a grass-roots community organization," according to its Website intro, "consisting of people who love Pier 84. We are determined to save it from decay and destruction due to neglect and commercial interests."
"Commercial interests," without further definition, could mean many things. Would that include tugs that tie-up to take water, or to resupply victuals for the galley fridge? Maybe not. "Piers should be designed as piers," Mr. Doswell told us. "They should have more access for boaters than many new ones do. The pier they built in the Village has no tie-ups; the same for Riverside Park, and the Trump pier was the worst."
Piers, it seems, have lately become extensions of the landscape, essentially new streets - or rather, pedestrian malls - stretching out in the water. If you wouldn't expect to find a tug tied-up on Christopher Street at Sheridan Square, why expect one at Christopher and 11th Avenue? Mr. Doswell is one of several who think about harbors, who think that's a hell of a way to run a seaport.
Shipwrecks may not have been on the official program, but they were on Henry Marine's. As the Robert IV and Dorothy J. sauntered up the Arthur Kill, taking their time in respect to the kids aboard, we came upon the famous graveyard known as Witte's.
If they could see it, the residents of Manhattan towers might call it an eyesore - acres of rot and rust and relentless decay, the reason maritime industry was ousted in the first place from polite Manhattan and the newly polite shores opposite in Brooklyn, Queens, and Jersey. Once, a long time ago, the whole darn scrapyard caught fire. At least the blaze reduced the number of hulks.
That reduction of numbers, of course, is itself sorrowing to nostalgic mariners as they float by. That much less to see. They sometimes fall silent, solemn, maybe reverent, at the panorama gliding past. It's an epilogue not just of boats, but of eras of boats. Wooden tugs, part submerged, expose steam boilers through their wrecked decks. Over there, that's what's left of some railroad tugs - you can tell from the remains of the pilot houses. Such things, in life, have gone unseen for decades. In death, they'll remain only so much longer. Some drink it in, every visible speck, with an archeologist's eye, aware and anxious that the artifact becomes less with each tide.
There used to be a lot of this. Artist John Noble (MN March 17, 2003) built a career portraying the wreckage along the Kills, back before the cleanup. Now even Shooter's Island is more-or-less natural, albeit half the size it was before the wrecked drydocks and ferry aprons got carted away. Birds live there now. Witte's, the final pocket of the once-common, is a museum as well as mausoleum.
"It was an English land grant," someone aboard the Dorothy J. mentioned, "extending ownership well past the bulkhead. It's legality was upheld, so that's why they could just keep things there. And it's been there so long, it's now conisdered a habitat." We couldn't verify the statement by press time. But if it isn't true, it ought to be.
Keep the Past Behind Us?
The Dorothy J. began its bombardment of the Robert IV - clearly the result of a secret weapons program - with fat, rippling, pink water balloons. The commanders, including Dorothy's daughter Shelby, declined to give estimates of the casualties among victims already in bathing suits. The Robert IV returned fire with bagels. The Coast Guard, watching from its posts on the Kills, ordered a cease-fire. Even breadcrumbs could run afoul of emissions regulations these days.
"July 4 is the one day, more than any other day," said Carter Craft of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, "when people come to the water's edge not just to drink and view the Statue of Liberty, but to get a little more involved with what's going on." There are, after all, the fireworks, the single event each year that brings folks by the thousands to the city's coasts. "There's no better vantage than standing on the walkway of the bridges, seeing all the traffic idling on the FDR or the BQE or the bridges themselves. Then they see a tug and barge moving along freely." Even without their palmtops, the public might compute the benefits.
The Dorothy and the Robert passed dredging equipment, stilled for the holiday, probably part of the blasting operation deepening the channel to the New Jersey containerports. Next on our route was Staten Island's Howland Hook containerport, where a ship was loading. "She's from Turkey," quipped Capt. Mike Keena over the Dorothy's loudspeaker, "that's where Thanksgiving was invented."
Next came the tug yards - transferred variously from Manhattan and Brooklyn by City agencies over the years, concentrated between Mariner's Harbor and Port Richmond: K-Sea, McAllister, Moran, Reinauer, Penn Marine, Bouchard and a handful of small independents, past Caddell's drydocks, looking full as usual, Collectively, by far, they're the majority of the Port of New York's tugs. Yet less than a mile downstream, just past the mouth of the Kill, from the new baseball stadium on the shore adjoining the ferry, you wouldn't see the yards. The only reason you'd guess they were there would be the stream of tugs moving by, light and with huge petroleum barges. New England stays warm in the winter because of those craft passing that point
We steered easterly, coming up on Red Hook and the basins at its shore. Some people think the dredging should be here, where a sandy bottom obviates blasting. Others don't see the point. If the old sugar plant has closed down, why bother dredging Red Hook?
We haven't asked Reinauer and Hughes what they think about it, but they do moor tugs and barges there - hundreds, they report - including the Hughes barges that carry the Fourth of July fireworks out to the river for Macy's. New York Water Taxi - less than a year old, but steadily enlarging its fleet - makes its new homeport there, too. "We now have four vessels," said Tom Fox, president of the company which is backed by Douglas Durst, "and we expect more by the end of the year. We opened a machine shop in a Civil-War warehouse nearby. We have two kids from the Red Hook houses who are apprentices. A year ago we had three employees altogether. We have 48 today."
As a new arrival who required maritime facilities for a new maritime business - described as a boon to neighborhoods throughout the city that are nearer the shore than the subways - Mr. Fox has thoughts on redevelopment of the area. He doubts an Ikea furniture showroom, for example, would need the shorefront as much as boats do.
Rounding the blue-shedded Piers 6-12, which played a key role in the World Trade Center cleanup (Maritime Reporter & Engineering News, December 2001 edition) but whose continued profitability has been questioned, we spotted a huge banner on the north end: "Brooklyn Works!" Works at what? Works for whom? Signed by the Port Authority, it would be easy to presume Brooklyn works as a containerport like the one next door. But pressure to downzone has been massive, for commercial and residential zoning to replace the manufacturing zones of maritime industry. Given the City's plan to create garbage transfer stations in each borough, where tugs and barges pick up the waste, the downzoning was welcomed even by those supporting maritime industry in its other forms.
"To make [the rezoned Greenpoint/Williamsburg waterfront] better than Battery Park City," wrote Mr. Craft in a recent issue of Gotham Gazette, published by the Citizens Union Foundation, "public officials and developers alike must remember that the water itself is the most critical piece of this puzzle ...Obvious resources already exist. Bushwick Inlet could serve a whole host of uses along its three banks. The juncture of Newtown Creek and the East River create an eddy in the wake of Hunters Point where in-water activity could be accommodated with less worry and consternation than other open stretches of the East River."
The Brooklyn Navy Yard is in that vicinity. Once the birthplace of dreadnoughts, its 300 acres and 40 buildings today make a testimonial to adaptive reuse, with design studios, marketing firms, and antiques companies alongside city agencies, industrial installations, and of course maritime activities. As the Dorothy J. pulled up to the parade's mustering point, we could see two barges and a tug crammed into one graving dock.
Had those vessels come out, they would have increased the size of the parade by 25%. "We had twelve or thirteen boats in the parade," said John Doswell afterward. Another five, from NYPD and the Coast Guard, declined the invitation, citing their responsibilities to security issues. From our vantage atop the wheelhouse of the Dorothy J, we counted three boats lined-up ahead of us, four behind. Five, if we count a runabout darting in and out of line.
Whether or not a boat must be in line to join a parade, of course, is a subjective matter. A launch bearing "Regatta Patrol" on its nameboard paralleled the parade, its photographer capturing pictures. A tug, the Capt. Ben with a cement barge on the hawser, shadowed us too, a few hundred yards off the portside. "The Green tug knew the parade was happening," said Mr. Craft, "we were in touch by radio. But they'd been waiting for the tide up around Hell Gate, and weren't sure of their timing."
As far as public consciousness-raising is concerned, of course, even the scheduled ferries to Governor's Island and Staten Island were part of the display. So might the handsome square rigger Jeanie Johnston, visiting from Ireland, though she remained at her berth in North Cove. A cannon continued saluting the parade even after the Dorothy J had ambled past the Battery Park esplanade, where several hundred people had collected.
"I think next year we will atract more," said Mr. Craft, "I think it was just one of those things where we didn't get word out soon enough." Mr. Doswell agreed. "Next year were going to reach out more broadly, though this year's turnout was respectable enough." Indeed it was. A model-bow tug, a pushboat, a fireboat or two - each is a story unto itself. How many such stories would the inland masses know? What could the Sea Scouts, aboard their own boat, tell all those observers? Did the spectators have any idea how many trucks Capt. Ben's cement barge kept off the highways that holiday?
In a year, Marine News has covered five tug-related festivals - New York's Interpid Challenge, Waterford's Tug Roundup, the races in Charleston, and twice the Boston Tug Muster. In all but one, the sponsors said they were disapointed about the turnout. Bad weather got the blame. Who cares? The people who showed up had fun. Everyone aboard Henry Marine's two boats was having fun, as was, we imagine, everyone aboard the other boats in the parade too. Very few people in a parade frown.
But sponsors like to send messages. And last year at Waterford, everyone loved the turnout. The place was packed. That gives them bragging rights. The weather was perfect, of course, but there was another distinction. At Waterford, people not only see the boats, they get to board them from docks at the shore.
The public does board boats at Pier 63. The lightship Frying Pan offers dockside tours, and the Harvey gives free rides. Still, access is not so easy to the visiting vessel. The Dorothy J and the Robert IV docked in tandem, fenders and tires serving as gangplanks. They're easy enough if you're used to them, but most of the public is not. "Shelby?" we asked Dorothy's daughter. "As in Shelby Rose? The Shelby Rose?" Her father, Bob Henry, operates Island Towing and Salvage, and has made a plucky little tug by that name a legend on New York harbor. Shelby nodded amusedly. "Will you follow your mother's footsteps into the tug business?" we asked. She seemed noncommital, though voiced an ambition to join the Marines. Then she went swimming.
Six or eight of the kids went swimming, maybe more, diving - or more properly, leaping - from an upper deck of the Robert. Into the Hudson? It would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Nobody knows better than the mariner that the cleansing of New York's waters is an ongoing success. One after another, the kids from the Robert tumbled in. The landlubbers on Pier 63 could but watch, envious in the sticky humidity.
The afternoon wore on like any Fourth of July, except for the rocking as water taxis eased in and out. On the stern of the Dorothy, engineer Vincent Caruso muttered over the grill - two dozen hot dogs had frozen into a block, and wouldn't cook properly. Hostilities renewed between the Dorothy and the Robert, with fusillades of bagels and balloons. An announcement was made: the judges had declared the Robert "best workboat" in the parade. "I owe everything to my men," shouted Dorothy. By strict definitions, there were three workboats in the parade, all tugs - two, if we discount the coincidence of the Capt. Ben. Both official workboats were from Henry Marine. Where was the rest of the industry? It's not like they'd gone off to the mountains. So many friends of McAllister showed up for the fireworks, they had to send five boats out to watch.
"Some landlubber organizations are perceived as pains in the neck," said Adam Brown, representing the Working Waterfront Association, "as upper east-side dilettantes." To Brown, and to many others, the heavy on the harbor is the Hudson River Park Trust, with its apparent indifference to waterborne matters. "Hudson River Park excludes the industry," said Mr. Brown, "boats can't even tie up to get water - so they ask why should they provide anything in return?"
Tom Fox, of the Water Taxi, told us he was the originator the five-mile park."I purposely did not sanitize the watefront," he said, "we kept a midtown maritime district. Hudson River Park should be designed for reception of boats, and there should be a harbormaster. But I left after the plan was drawn-up, and the people who are there now are neither park builders nor waterfront people." Mr. Fox has joined the board of Friends of Hudson River Park, which John Doswell co-chairs, to coax things back to the original vision.
"The root of the indifference," said Mr. Craft, is that [mayor] Bloomberg, who has a role in appointing the park's administration, suffers from the same landlubber perspective that most city officials do - it's not malice, it's ignorance. In the eyes and ears of policy makers and elected officials, there's so much commotion from so many interest groups that they're deafened to the call from the waterways."
"To a certain extent," said Mr. Brown, "the towing industry is doing the right things now, getting engaged with local politicians and local city politics, taking elected officials on tours. AWO has started an outreach campaign, to take elected officials out to see the possibilities. AWO has the force of the collective operators. When AWO was doing the working harbor tours, they did get the tug companies to appear."
Messrs. Brown, Doswell, Craft, and Fox commented for us days after the 4th, of course. Even had they sailed with Henry Marine
, Dorothy would have shut them up: "No talking business," she'd commanded early that day, "this is a holiday." And indeed it was.
We made our way back toward the East River at about 1730, intent upon a front-row seat for the fireworks. We found the remains of a concrete pier about a mile north of the Williamsburg Bridge, with just barely enough left to tie up to. Before long, two more small tugs, the Sandy G. and the Bergen Point, lashed themselves to something on the other side of the same concrete spit. A Circle Liner with a load of passengers came near, and Dorothy called out to the crew to come aboard for sodas. But there was nothing left to tie-up to.
Party boats, fishermen, yachts, the Sea Scouts, crew boats all showed-up, and kept their engines running against East River currents. Some waited an hour or longer, treading water. But the wait was well worth it. Maybe because it capped a day of so many events, it seemed like the grandest, most sky-filling exhibition in years. It was 0300 on July 5th before the Dorothy J. got back to Tottenville. No one knew how much later the Robert IV, slower with its flat bow, would arrive. Despite a great day, farewells were brief. Everyone was dog-tired, nineteen hours after casting-off. And home, for the luckiest of us, was still a half-hour's drive.
Sunburned and bleary, we hit the sack at once. As we drifted off, glimpses from a full day played before mind's eye. Then, with a start, we snapped awake. Independence Day is the wrong name! The Fourth of July should be called "Declaration of Independence Day." For it was a document, not social change, that was set forth in 1776.
Before independence was won, a war had to be fought. A long, bitter family feud. How lucky we are that it was so long ago.