New York Harbor is daunting at night. Those who have sailed these waters will tell you of an effect unique to this place that renders the lights of buildings and cars on shore and the lights of boats in the water nearly indistinguishable, glistening and sliding past one another across the inky nighttime river in shimmering chaos. It’s a beautiful image, undoubtedly, but one less-than-meditative for the amateur nighttime yachtsman — or woman. The explosions begin, booming one after another, and apprehension mushrooms into hyper-vigilance in the blink of a wide, fully dilated eye.
It's the fourth of July, and I am at the helm of a 42-foot Beneteau sailboat, chartered for the evening by a family of five intent on securing the best seats in the house for the Macy’s Independence Day Fireworks Spectacular. Every year, fireworks are set off from anchored barges just south of Wall Street over the Hudson River.
The family chartered Gemini, a double-sailed helm ship with a steering wheel and galley, through the yachting company I work for, which is run out of the 79th Street Boat Basin off of Riverside Park in Manhattan. It is my job to provide my customers with a calm, pleasurable sailing trip, filling their drinks and plating their food, while keeping them out of danger. I alone am responsible for the navigation and safety of the vessel. This is not my first day of my summer job — it is, however, my first outing at night.
Hundreds of sailing and motor vessels of all sizes crowd the Hudson River Channel in a maze of shiny, expensive, unscratched hulls. Despite my unease, I am lucky to be on the water for the Fourth — luckier still to be getting paid for it. I can’t help but compare this watery outing to others of my past — some spent keeled over the leeward rail of a tall ship, retching miserably into stormy seas, and some spent frustrated but focused on hopes of racing glory. Other experiences were simple and pure; true testaments to the inextricable connection between water and meditation that Herman Melville spoke of in the first pages of Moby-Dick, the quintessential novel of man and the sea. Ishmael ponders the people of the insular island of “Manhattoes,” drawn instinctively and obsessively to the water’s edge, fixed in “ocean reveries.” In this moment in July 2013, am I not among them? Am I not one of Melville’s “landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster — tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks,” and drawn to the water obsessively?
With Melville’s words ringing in my ears, I navigate the Gemini as close as I can to the 34th Street boundary in time for the fireworks display. When the father kisses his young son’s forehead, I wish, if briefly, for the company of my own family. A night off might have been nice for this Independence Day.
Yet, I feel the thrill and magic I have always felt aboard a boat of any size. I am sweating, clenching my jaw, hauling lines, and clearing dishes, but the scene before me is breathtakingly beautiful. I feel at home.
I’ve met the water in many guises — first as an inexperienced sailor, drawn to it by the lure of racing prowess, pirate lore, and adventure.
Although I’m most attached to sailing, I’ve always loved windsurfing, swimming, rowing, and kayaking, and nearly every watery experience. My memories of time in the water, on the water, even near the water are among my clearest and most prominent. It’s made me feel both impossibly small when looking out into seemingly boundless open ocean and prematurely sage when coaching beginner sailors on the water for the first time.
A Watery Start
Why, a child of the urban and less-than-maritime metropolitan borough of Brooklyn, N.Y., have I felt so entirely at home at sea, far away from the bright lights, honking cars, and hot dog vendors?
It begins with my parents; more specifically, my mother, who grew up sailing on the south shore of Long Island and taught sailing in the Caribbean in her 20s. She enrolled my younger brother and me in a sailing camp as soon as we were old enough, 9 and 7 years old, respectively, and we would go on to sail competitively through high school.
The magic of the art of sail swept me away, betrothing me to the salty life of the seadog. The yacht club where I learned to sail was among the smallest in the region, and not well equipped. Our sailing camp — like its half-stoned sailing instructors in between semesters at college — had little direction and even less motivation toward competitive distinction. We learned on a small fleet of decrepit Optimists, 8-foot bathtub hulls with tiny, sprit-rigged sails, whose booms were the perfect height for conking children on the side of the head whenever the boat was turned. The older kids moved on to slightly larger, double-sailed boats in equally poor condition and with just as much head-conking potential. Windless days were spent watching inappropriate movies and listening to our sailing instructors scream fervently at reruns of The Price Is Right while we played cards on the musty carpeted floor. We loved every second of it.
I returned to the camp every summer for 10 years. My parents, desperate for more scholastic — or at least less-explicit — summers for their children, tried unsuccessfully to interest us in scouting camps, summer college programs, or art classes. They kept this up for years, always to be met with the same defiant insistence of another summer at sailing camp. The tiny bay I sailed on seemed vast and limitless. Controlling my own boat was intoxicating and addicting. The kids I learned alongside were different and unusual, especially so when released from the binds of the school day, where activity meant kickball if we were lucky, choir practice if we were not.
Something about my mother’s half-hearted surrender to the dirty, scummy world of sailing made it just dangerous enough to be alluring, but safe enough to know I would win a smile at the recounting of my sailing adventures each night after dinner. I was a pirate by day, a suburban pre-teen by night. I came home exhausted and sunburned and happy.
Meanwhile, as I entered the tumultuous years of adolescence, I spent the time in between sailing summers searching hopelessly for academic direction. Extracurricular interests appeared and faded as each school year went by. When I began high school, I still felt at ease only when the turmoil of my disillusion was met by the turmoil of the wintery sea. During science class, I would daydream about the starting line at a racecourse. During gym class, I never felt as integrated into the competition as I did during the early morning rigging of a mid-summer regatta. After school, no matter the time of year, I would head as soon as I could down to the bay shore near my house, or, if I was lucky enough to find a ride, take the 30-minute drive down to the blustery oceanfront. Then the summer would return and I would feel whole again, comforted and welcomed by the sailing community.
Sailing lessons on Manhasset Bay, Long Island Sound (Photo by Leah Feldman ’14)
Looking back, I have done most of my growing and maturing on the water. Where better to learn trust and security than with your father at the breakers of an ocean beach on the east end of Long Island? Where better to learn ambition and sportsmanship than on the starting line of a 90-boat regatta? Where better to learn camaraderie and perseverance than aboard a pitching tall ship, held fast to the deck by your seasick shipmates, comforting you between their own merciless waves of nausea? Weaving in between yachts and state-issued barges at night in New York Harbor will teach you resolve and responsibility, quickly, as I would come to learn this summer.
When it was time to begin conversations about college, I floundered. I had no idea what I wanted to study or where I wanted to go. Books and literature had always been comfortable for me, while math and science usually led to panic attacks, and so I decided on an English degree. Colgate University turned out to be everything I had imagined college would be — new friends and academic engagement beyond anything I had experienced in high school. In my usual indecisive way, however, I found myself motivated by a familiar wanderlust, visiting friends at neighboring colleges nearly every weekend. Here on campus, I explored nearly every club and department and found little that really stuck. The sailing club, however, offered me a chance to get back on the water — even if fresh water, not salt — once again.
|Furling the topsail on the Corwith Cramer – Feldman, third from the left (Courtesy of the Williams-Mystic Maritime Studies Program
Then, following what I knew I loved, I took a core course, The Caribbean, with Professor Kezia Page, whom I adored and immediately elected as my academic adviser. The concept of studying literature that included things that I had always loved — a deep and expansive relationship with all that the ocean has to offer— completely fascinated me. I took more Caribbean-focused courses, and was pleasantly surprised to find them, and the literature we read, both varied and deeply valued in the curriculum — something I did not expect from a school in the northeastern snow belt. This led to oceanography and environmental studies courses, both of which I found compelling and challenging.
My interest in worlds outside of upstate New York soon led me to pursue off-campus study. I spent my junior-year fall semester on Colgate’s London English Study Group, where in reading The Tempest and Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s words about water caught my attention. I also visited my aunt’s coastal home in Margate. The small boating town had buoys lining the streets, sandy cafés, and the smell of salt in the air. I immediately felt at home. Alongside my classes, I worked part time for a small international publishing company and literary agency, where I read submitted manuscripts and edited accepted work, mostly historical and science fiction. I felt enormously lucky to be involved. Recognizing my own bias, I found myself gravitating toward stories taking place on or around the ocean, or focused on characters with strong urges toward travel and seafaring. More than being homesick for America, I was homesick for the sea. So, after London, I spent a semester right on the sea.
I had discovered Williams-Mystic, the interdisciplinary maritime studies program of Williams College and Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. We spent the first 10 days aboard the tall ship Corwith Cramer, passing through the tumultuous Florida Straits; a seasick and sleepless few days for many of us on board. The ship operated under a traditional watch system. All 22 students on board would be on watch for at least four hours of every 14. Fighting our nausea, we kept an eye on the sails, charted our course through the Caribbean Sea, and learned ship terminology, celestial navigation, and knot tying. In morning classes, we learned maritime laws and practices, as well as the scientific relevance of the research we were conducting on maritime physics, marine ecology, and weather systems.
We ate, slept, sailed, and learned in our watch groups of six or so, each led by a ship’s mate who showed us the ropes (pun intended). My lessons came not only from lectures by the ship’s engineer and captain, but also an oncoming storm system, or the strength needed to grasp the yards while clambering around the rigging, setting sails, and tightening halyards 40 feet above the deck. The demanding lifestyle on the water brought us closer together and taught us all the true value of endurance and perseverance. I disembarked the Corwith Cramer feeling confident in my ability at sea, and knowing that I had truly found my academic direction.
Back on shore, we spent the rest of the semester studying maritime literature, history, policy, and science. We explored the seaport, and at the Mystic Seaport Museum of the Sea we learned 19th-century shipbuilding and rigging techniques. Three times a week, I would show up at the museum’s working shipyard before class, just to help move lines and rig the museum’s old whaling ship.
Corwith Cramer (Courtesy of the Williams-Mystic Maritime Studies Program)
When my Literature of the Sea professor with Williams-Mystic, Richard King, invited me to work as his research assistant for part of the summer, I got to continue my fixation with the water in an academic capacity. Although it pained me to leave my charter boat job at the 79th Street Boat Basin for a month in Mystic, as soon as I arrived, I knew I had done the right thing. I spent my mornings researching maritime poets and poetry, and classifying works of maritime fiction and nonfiction by American authors for “Searchable Sea Literature,” the program’s Internet database. I was given the opportunity to interview one of those authors, Richard Dey, whose collection Selected Bequia Poems, about a small windward island in the Grenadines, is one of my personal favorites. Our interview led to the addition of his biography to the database and allowed me to connect to a living author in a way I never had before.
I knew that I could not spend my summer in Mystic without volunteering at the seaport’s Henry DuPont Preservation Shipyard, where the old whaling ship, the Charles W. Morgan (the museum’s pride and joy, and the country’s oldest surviving whaling ship), was undergoing the final months of a major long-term restoration. So, in the afternoons, I would head down to the shipyard. Built in New Bedford, Mass. (the one-time whaling capital of the world), the Morgan operated during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
In the peak of the whale-hunting years, the animals’ blubber was harvested for oil, the main source of heat and light at the time. After near-destruction during World War II, the Morgan was brought to Mystic Seaport and later declared a National Historic Landmark. Restoration after years of damage due to weathering had been in progress in some form since the early 1960s, but a large donation had recently hastened its completion, in time for the 172nd anniversary of its initial launch, by mid-July 2013.
I was drawn to the opportunity not only by the proximity to the water, but also the intrinsic connection to maritime history. A decidedly unglamorous venture into the world of volunteerism, my job consisted mainly of painting tar onto yards of unfinished rigging and coiling lines thicker than my arm into giant, dusty barrels. At the end, however, I got to watch a true relic of maritime history be returned to the water, lowered ceremoniously into the Mystic River Estuary, fitted with vestiges of my handiwork along its rigging and deck. And I had the honor of working alongside men and women who have been engaged in the project for more than 40 years, who know and love the ship more than their own homes. (The ship is now an exhibit at the Mystic Seaport Museum.)
I was proud of the work I had done, but the feeling that emanated from all involved was more than dignity in our work — it was an unshakable sense of community. I wasn’t paid to help rig the Morgan; I showed up every day to be surrounded by boats and people who loved them like I did. The Morgan is a living example of the timeless fascination human beings have with the water and all things maritime. Its detail and beauty reflect the connection to the waters of the 1800s; its stature reflects the dedication to maritime culture still prevalent today — a dedication I have felt my whole life.
As I clambered around the ship’s decks and holdings, I could hear echoes of Ishmael’s life aboard the Pequod, see shadows of Captain Ahab, Starbuck, and Stubb, and feel the remnants of cold, dark nights in pursuit of the great, white whale. Maritime-minded or not, this was many an English major’s dream come true.
The Charles W. Morgan, under restoration (Courtesy of Mystic Seaport)
Back on New York Harbor, the fireworks have ended and Jackson, the family’s 4-year-old son, has fallen asleep. It’s time to return the boat to the dock (hopefully without waking him). The boat basin is within sight, and the lights of the 79th Street Boat Basin Café twinkle, reassuringly now, in the nighttime skyline. My navigation and deck lights are on, allowing others to see me, but aiding me none in spotting boats in my vicinity.
As I turn the boat back around toward uptown Manhattan in a tight leeward (away from the wind) spin known as a jibe, I narrowly miss the anchor line of a massive police boat patrolling the 34th Street line across the river. But all is well. We reach the slip with a light thud against the protective fenders, and I skip over the lifelines to secure Gemini’s lines to the cleats. Without the pressure of responsibility for the first time all night, I am relieved, but no part of me is hesitant to get back out on the water to return the boat to its mooring after the family says good night and departs. This is the thrill that I love. Being on the water is tense and unpredictable, and never boring.
My quest of safe return for that family was a quest undergone by sailors long before me. Safe return may not have meant dodging barges and fishing boats for sailors in Melville’s time, but the relief of a boat reaching its dock is universal. While working on the Morgan, I was afforded the luxury of power tools and sunscreen, but I got at least a glimpse of what refitting in the 1800s must have been like.
This is what I like most. I can connect in some small way to the history of this culture — I can feel what people have been feeling at sea for centuries. This is what sailors live for. This is what fills bookshelves with maritime literature and keeps children running back to the sea during summers. My Fourth of July was spent with a family of perfect strangers, and yet I felt a part of a community and connection that I wouldn’t have traded for anything.