The Day I Steered the Ferry

1977

Manhattan from Staten Island Ferry, Twin Towers, World Trade Center, New York Harbor, Oren B Helbok photo

My father taught science at a seventh-through-twelfth-grade school in the Bronx – one of those teachers whom the students either loved or hated. Over time, he got to know some of the families of the kids who loved him. Starting as a very small boy, I got to know some of these people too.  I do not recall much about most of the students (although I remain in close touch with one of them, with whom my father and I have chased trains for more than fifty years), and I remember even less about most of their parents, but to one particular father I owe a great debt of gratitude.

I have only the vaguest mental image of Fredericka (Freddy, as she went by in those days) – possibly from her senior yearbook picture – but I do recall her parents, Eric and Lilah; they befriended my parents and me, and I believe that my mother and I had at least one meal at their house in our neighborhood even after my own parents separated.  Eric worked as a deckhand on the Staten Island Ferry, and on a few Saturday mornings in the late 1970s my father and I went down to the southern tip of Manhattan, to the Whitehall ferry terminal, so we could ride with him.  In those days, the ferry cost a quarter for a pedestrian for the round trip (collected only when leaving Manhattan), and the boats still carried cars and trucks; in addition to opening and closing the gates at the terminals, the hands served as traffic cops, directing vehicles to their proper places on the bottom deck.  Once under way, though, the hands’ duties became less pressing, and Eric took us on tours throughout his boats, including at least once into an engineroom – an engineroom from the age of steam. That would make it aboard the Pvt. Joseph F. Merrell, the Cornelius G. Kolff, or the Verrazzano, all dating from 1951 and the last steam-powered Staten Island boats, all built by Bethlehem Steel at its shipyard on Staten Island itself and each carrying a Skinner Unaflow engine of 6,000 horsepower.

In the year of my birth, 1965, the City of New York’s Department of Marine & Aviation took delivery of its first diesel-electric Staten Island ferries, the 6,500 horsepower John F. Kennedy, American Legion II, and Govenor Herbert H. Lehman.  Bethlehem Steel having ceased maritime construction on Staten Island in 1958, these three came from Levingston Shipbuilding in Orange, Texas, on the Sabine River north of Port Arthur, each powered by four sixteen-cylinder General Motors 567Cs – essentially the same engines as in many freight and passenger railroad locomotives, including the ones that my father and I watched haul trains through the Bronx in the same era that we rode the ferries.

Staten Island Ferry, George W Hilton book, wheresteamlives.net

This 1964 softcover book about the ferries has the steam-powered Dongan Hills on the cover; she served from 1929 to 1968.

The Joseph F. Merrell in drydock towards the end of her career; photo from correctionhistory.org

Staten Island Ferry, Pvt Joseph F Merrell, wheresteamlives.net

The six boats collectively made more than a hundred trips every day; each had a capacity of 3,000 or 3,500 people and twenty-four or forty vehicles.  The three steam ferries measured 269 feet long and 69 feet wide, with the diesel boats eight feet longer and having the same beam: less than four times as long as wide – pretty stubby.  By comparison, liners and cruise ships including the Titanic, the Queen Elizabeth 2, and the Queen Mary 2 measured between eight and nine and a half times as long as wide.  At least in part because of their wide beams, the ferries had incredible stability, not pitching or rolling even in choppy water – but they did vibrate like crazy: One could easily stand on the lower deck, right at the very front of the boat, wind whipping through one’s hair, with the spectacular view all around, and still feel every one of the engines’ horsepower come up through the soles of one’s feet, the rumbling sound of the of the engines joined by the rattle of steel against steel somewhere.  (The boats all cruised at sixteen knots, about eighteen and a half miles per hour, taking twenty-five minutes for the 5.2-mile run in either direction.)

I made pictures on only one of our rides on the ferry, when in the late winter or early spring of 1977 my father and I boarded a boat – I don’t know which – to spend some time with Eric.  On this day, Eric took us into the pilothouses; each ferry had two.  (To expedite loading and unloading and operations in general, most ferries – and all of the Staten Islanders, then and now – run identically in both directions; double-ended, they never need to turn around.)  Piecing together the pictures and my incomplete memories, we must have ridden across and back at least twice, and my photos show the first round trip.  Eric first brought us to the trailing pilothouse; from that elevated and exalted vantage point, I made photos looking back at our wake, with the Lower Manhattan skyline across the whole frame.  Some of the photos also include the gulls trailing us; I don’t know if the birds hoped for treats tossed up to them from passengers, or random trash just blowing off the boat into the water, or if somehow the ferry’s propwash churned up edibles.  Out past the Statue of Liberty, we overtook a barge-mounted heavy-duty crane getting pushed across the harbor by a tugboat, and I photographed that too.

Manhattan from Staten Island Ferry, Whitehall ferry terminal, Brooklyn Bridge, Williamsburg Bridge, Governors Island ferry, New York Harbor, Oren B Helbok photo
Manhattan from Staten Island Ferry, Twin Towers, World Trade Center, New York Harbor, Oren B Helbok photo
Manhattan from Staten Island Ferry, Twin Towers, World Trade Center, New York Harbor, Oren B Helbok photo
Staten Island Island Ferry, barge crane, tugboat, New York Harbor, Oren B Helbok photo

Then we went forward, to the leading pilothouse.  The man whom we met, the one guiding the boat, sure looked the part of a ferry master: Of uncertain age but plainly of long experience, he had a creased face and a white captain’s hat.  Perhaps we met more than one person: At that time, most trains still ran with at least two people in each locomotive’s cab; would the ferries have operated with just one in the pilothouse?  I do not remember, and in any event I only made photos of the one man, as we came back towards Manhattan.  In all of them, he sits in the same relaxed but vigilant posture, his hand lightly on the wheel.

Staten Island Ferry, ferry captain, Staten Island Ferry captain, Whitehall Ferry Terminal, New York Harbor, Oren B Helbok photo
Staten Island Ferry, ferry captain, Staten Island Ferry captain, Manhattan skyline, New York Harbor, Oren B Helbok photo

I’ve no idea how the next act in the drama came to pass.  On our second round trip, heading towards Staten Island again and doing the timetable sixteen knots, with Governors Island off the port bow and Ellis Island off the starboard, the captain offered me the wheel.  Indicating the flagless flagpole that pointed straight out from the front of the pilothouse, he said to me, “You just keep that aimed at the highest point you can see there on Staten Island.”  (At 401 feet above sea level, Todt Hill rises higher than anything along the Atlantic Coast south of Mount Desert in Maine.)  Then he went and stood over in a corner.  Here I stood, steering the ferry.  Always tall for my age, at eleven and a half years old I did not have trouble seeing over the wheel.  We had a picture-perfect day for a boat ride – clear blue sky, a few puffy clouds, a pleasant breeze – so I just had to keep going in a straight line.  Not hard, right?  But of course ferries present something like the side of a barn to the wind, no matter from which direction it blows.  And of course the Upper Bay has tides.

The forces of nature acted on the boat.  And the end of the flagpole slowly drifted away from Todt Hill.

 

I steered a little in the opposite direction.  The flagpole kept drifting.  I steered a little more.  The drifting stopped.  I steered a little more to get the flagpole properly aimed.  It slowly swung back towards the high point – and then of course slid right past it, now aimed too far on the other side of it.  I turned the wheel in the other direction, and then a little more, arresting the slide and bringing our heading to where it belonged.

 

And then past that.  Turn, turn past, turn back, turn past, turn back, repeat.  I kept up this routine all of the way across the harbor, my hands glued to the wheel and my eyes shifting back and forth continuously from the end of the flagpole to Todt Hill.  When my father looked behind us, he saw the sine-wave-shaped wake that I had carved.  But neither he nor the captain said anything to me about it; evidently I had not gotten us too far off course.

As we approached the ferry terminal at St. George, Staten Island, the captain took over, saying something like “You’d better let me land this thing, son; that’s why they pay me the big bucks.”  The vibrations ceased when he cut power and we glided towards the slip – but then the vibrations returned, redoubled, as the captain called for reversing the propellers to arrest our motion, and an uprush of tempestuous foam appeared in the water in front of us.  The wooden piles groaned as the boat slid against them, but like a hand into a glove the ferry settled against the apron, and the deckhands dropped the loops of wire rope over the bollards to hold her fast.  The captain set the engineroom telegraph to Slow Ahead, so the boat too held herself against the apron, and the workers on the pier lowered the gangways against the upper passenger deck; deckhands opened the gates, and people and cars poured off the boat.  We changed ends, walking in the open air across the top deck from one pilothouse to the other, and waited for the signal to depart for Manhattan.

Staten Island Ferry, Gov Herbert H Lehman, St George Ferry Terminal, wheresteamlives.net

The Gov. Herbert H. Lehman in a slip at St. George, Staten Island, in a photo from SIFerry.com

So much has changed in the more than four decades since that day.  The skyline of Lower Manhattan looks completely different, with any number of new skyscrapers added and of course the Twin Towers gone.  The Kennedy remains in service in summer 2020, loved by passengers for her generous open-air decks and considered the most reliable boat by the crews, but the other five boats active in the 1970s all went to scrap. Between general liability concerns and fear of terrorism, eleven-year-olds do not get access to ferry pilothouses or enginerooms or any number of the other places that my father and I visited, welcomed in by complete strangers who recognized the importance of sharing their work with interested outsiders – especially children, who might “get hooked” and make their own careers in the pilothouses or enginerooms or those other places.  I wish I remembered more about our engineroom visit on the ferry, or that we had taken even one photo down there; for that matter, we never made a single photo of the ferries from the shore either, or a single one of Eric, whom I almost surely never adequately thanked.  I wish I knew the actual title of the man who let me steer his boat; the ferries had captains, pilots, and mates.  And I wish I knew his name; if only I had written it down, along with some of what he said to us: I feel certain he imparted wisdom earned in decades on the water.

But in that era my father and I took far too much for granted, thinking that it would all last forever.

Staten Island Ferry, ferry captain, Staten Island Ferry captain, New York Harbor, Oren B Helbok photo

Would that that day in 1977 could have lasted longer: After leaving Staten Island behind on our second trip, and once again in open water, the captain said to me, “You did a fine job on the way out, son.  Now just keep her aimed for the World Trade Center.”  And I carved another sine wave across the harbor.