New York Harbor is a tidal estuary. Tides moving in from the Atlantic Ocean have a force that reaches Troy, New York, a three-hour drive upstate from Manhattan. The harbor’s Upper Bay is fed in turn by the Hudson (the Mahicans called the river “Muh-he-kun-ne-tuk,” which means “the river that flows both ways”) and by the Long Island Sound, via the East River (which is really a tidal strait rather than a river). This confluence of tidal waters has yielded, historically, a rich ecosystem; it’s also tough, at times, to navigate. But with the right wind, it can be a hell of a fun sail.
Saturday night was my second time out on the Pioneer this spring. Along with another professor and her class, I’d chartered the schooner to celebrate the end of a college honors seminar I taught this semester, “The Port of New York,” an interdisciplinary survey of the city’s cultural history, pre-Dutch to the present, through the prism of the waterfront. Our course began, months ago, with an overview of the harbor’s natural history, which helped to explain something we noticed on one of our early walks around the island’s southernmost tip: that the winds coming off the harbor from the west side are what make Battery Park, Battery Park City, and Tribeca much windier, on average, than the east side, where we live, where my class met, and where the Pioneer docks with the other historic ships owned by the Seaport Museum. The East River, in other words, is sheltered from the harbor’s winds by Brooklyn and by Governors Island, which explains why, prior to the age of steam ships, slips were built up and down our side rather than on the Hudson. When Melville’s Ishmael tells you to “circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon,” to work your way from “Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall northward,” he’s leading you through the streets of our neighborhood. His “crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive” may be a thing of the past, but the water’s magnetic pull still works, at least for this kid who grew up land-locked, and I’ve been itching all winter for the Pioneer‘s sailing schedule to start up again.
Getting my daughters on the boat is another thing altogether. It’s clear to me by now that they cannot appreciate the fact that many blocks in our neighborhood house more people than lived in the entire town I grew up in, that all the students in my high school would fit into our apartment building — twice — or that we’re extraordinarily lucky to have every mode of entertainment and cultural production at our immediate disposal, every day, ours for the taking. Yeah, sailing on a 120-year-old schooner out to the Statue of Liberty is a total drag, especially when you have to watch the sun go down and New York City’s lights come on, right? But since Stephanie’s visiting her parents on the other side of the continent this week, I needed the girls to come with me on the sail. They protested. They’d been sailing last year, they said, and more than once. They were certain they were old enough to stay alone for two hours. And they probably are, but I didn’t like the idea of being on the water, thoroughly unavailable in case of emergency, and so I held my line. They packed a deck of cards, anticipating an evening of sheer boredom.
On the water, my friend Don was at the helm. One of the more colorful characters in our neighborhood, Don lives nearby on the Wavertree, one of the museum’s tall ships. He’d recently shaved his beard, had only a bushy moustache left, and was sporting a broad-brimmed straw hat. I’ve heard him say before that he categorizes men based on the kinds of hats their faces can get away with, and Don, let me say it, is the kind of guy who can wear a range of hats, and this particular hat delivered the goods. How it stayed on for our entire sail, I have no idea, but it did. Don called orders to his crew, and we motored out from the pier, heading up the East River toward the Brooklyn Bridge, where we would turn 180 degrees and hope to catch wind down river toward the Upper Bay.
As you round the bottom of Manhattan island on the water, for a brief moment, just as you pass the Staten Island Ferry terminal, you’re able to take in the city’s entire extant architectural history on display. Nestled at the bottom of State Street, just around the corner from Melville’s birthplace and a few doors down from where George Washington lived as president, is the last of the Federal Era waterfront mansions. Built in the 1790s by a sea merchant named James Watson, it now serves as the rectory for the Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, the first American to be canonized by the Catholic church.
From the air over the harbor, lower Manhattan looks like this:
Look in the lower center of the photo, just to the right of the silver cylinder, to see the rectory in its current context. From this vantage point you can see every wave of still-standing post-Revolutionary New York architecture in a single glance (with the exception of the Greek Revival period of the 1830s, hidden from view on Wall Street), from the Watson House to the early skyscrapers of the 1890s-1910s (including the barely visible Woolworth), to the old romantic art deco skyline of the 1920s and ’30s, to the boxy buildings that began with the Chase in 1960 (the very wide box just to the right of center in the rear), continued with the Water Street corridor (along the right), and culminated in the WTC (which would have dominated this view from the left if it hadn’t been destroyed by religious fanatics five years ago).
Since I’m a teacher by profession and a downtown chauvinist by both inclination and good fortune, I often find myself launching into mini lecturettes like the one above when I’m on the water, especially when I’m with students. I’d just made the rounds alerting my class to the coming view of the Seton rectory, and hence to two full centuries of New York architecture, when several students helped hoist and secure the sails and we began to catch some serious wind. Up front, where we were, one of the crew members clenched her fist, jabbed her elbow toward her waist (as if to say “Yesss!”), and said, “Now that’s sailing!” My teaching moment was lost in the growing excitement of the sail. A few minutes later, though, clipping along as if we were racing, we were getting so much wind from the west that we were leaning hard to port, even taking in a little water. The Pioneer‘s not that big a boat. Standing on its sides, you’re only ever a few feet from the water. The maximum number of passengers, not counting the crew, is 40, which is exactly where we stood, and so the boat felt heavy. A few kids on the port side looked nervous for a minute or two. Anna and Molly clutched their deck of cards close.
Yes, we were sailing, and it was probably the briskest and most exciting sail I’d been on, but for a moment the thought crossed my mind that someone might go overboard, or worse, we might capsize into what was certainly very cold water. But Don made the call to drop the foresail, and though we still had enough wind to keep the motor off for the duration, the boat righted. As we came upright those sitting to starboard, including Anna and Molly, were hit with a salty spray. Now holding soggy cards, the girls vowed to sue me when we were back on shore.
A week earlier I’d taken another group of students on the boat, though for a much more boring sail. No wind whatsoever, we motored to the Statue of Liberty, drifted there for half an hour or so, then motored back. This time we sailed to the statue without the motor, and at the same speed at least. As we approached, Don sent crew members circulating to tell us that we would be passing the statue at the perfect moment to catch a halo effect in the sunset. Robyn caught it on film:
From there we headed farther south, toward the Narrows, where the Verrazano Bridge spans the channel that connects the Lower Bay to the Upper. In 1524, some 80 years before Henry Hudson sailed into the harbor, Giovanni da Verrazano anchored in the narrows and took a smaller boat into the Upper Bay, which he described as a “Beautiful Lake” in a “pleasant situation among some little steep hills through which a river of great size, and deep at its mouth, forced its way to the sea.” The shores were “very well peopled,” he wrote, by natives wearing “feathers and fowls of divers colors.” The native inhabitants have long since been removed, the steep hills replaced by tall buildings or dwarfed by bridges, the oysters that once populated the harbor may be depleted, but the beautiful lake remains beautiful.
With the sun down, we turned back toward Manhattan. It was much colder now, and the wind showed no signs of diminishing. Students who had worn shorts sat on deck with their legs pulled up under their sweatshirts. They shivered and shifted foot to foot. Crew members did their share of serious tugging and tying, keeping us on course. One complained that the sometimes difficult confluence of currents is something most recreational athletes — kayakers and jet skiers especially — just don’t understand. “It’s like they’re candidates for the Darwin awards,” she said, “jet skiing or kayaking in a place where three currents meet with this kind of force. One spill on a jet ski, and if the fall didn’t kill them, the currents sure would do the trick.”
Though Anna, my older daughter, was busily engaged in adult conversation (in part with Dave and Nathan, who’d come along to replace a couple students who pulled out last minute), Molly became more and more miserable in the cold and the dark. To make things worse, I had told her before we left that she probably wouldn’t need a real coat — a longsleeved shirt should do. She glared at me from across the boat, cursing me for dragging her out here to be frightened, sprayed, and frozen to death. I called her over and gave her my own longsleeved overshirt, then offered to hold her and keep her warm with my body.
In the last year or so, Molly and I have moved past the stage where I can easily hold her like this. A fourth-grader, she’s fierce about her independence and undemonstrative with her affections. She holds her tender feelings close, the way she held those sea-sprayed cards. But for whatever reason — maybe it was just an evolutionary drive to stay warm — she let me hold her for the last half hour into port. We looked at a million city lights and pointed to buildings we knew. We watched the party barges pass and listened to their bad music demonstrate the Doppler Effect. Every few minutes we’d be sprayed by water over the front of the boat, and sometimes she’d go report to Anna that she’d almost been drowned again. We talked about the Mayflower, which she’s currently studying in school, and wondered how different it had been from the boat we were on, what it must have been like to sail the Atlantic, what it meant to live in a world without airplanes or cars.
When we sailed around the backside of Governors Island, through Buttermilk Channel, the freezing winds dropped away, leaving us all to enjoy the skyline view as we approached the East River. I told Molly a story I had just learned, about how Buttermilk Channel, which had been dredged to create a strait for shipping, got its name: As the legend goes, the channel was so shallow in its early years that Brooklyn farmers could walk their cows to Governors Island at low tide to graze. When they’d walk back, if they were caught in the incoming tide, the cows’ milk would go sour and shoot, filling the water with buttermilk. I told her how much it meant to me that she came for the sail, that she’d remember it fondly one day, that I’d loved having half an hour to do nothing but snuggle and talk and blow warm breath on her face and neck to keep her warm. She nestled against me, and we laid back together to look up, past the sails, to take in the clouds, the moon, the stars.