A Long Voyage To the Bottom Of Erie Basin
By WENDELL JAMIESON (New York Times)
August 17, 2003, Sunday
ON the Warehouse Pier in Red Hook, they talk about the day the ship sank. It's hard not to: the ship is still there, masts and a few inches of funnel sticking at odd angles out of the oily water next to the rusted skeleton of the old Revere Sugar dock.
This was around 1997. They'd been watching it sink for weeks, little by little. A door in the steel hull had been left open; every day the surface of the Erie Basin got closer. A man had been seen working on it. Where was he? Bets were taken: when would it go down?
''We noticed it seemed to be getting lower and lower in the water, and we tried and we tried to reach this guy, and tell him, 'You've got to get a pump or do something,''' said Greg O'Connell, an ex-detective who developed the Warehouse Pier.
The end came quickly. The door got too low, the water poured in, and down it went. What does a sinking ship sound like? Like this: pfffffffffft.
''It's been there ever since,'' Mr. O'Connell said.
It's a sad story, the story of the sunken ship, a nautical mystery with many clues hidden by the harbor water. But the basic outlines are this: the ship is nearly 100 years old; it once served as a beacon on dark seas; it traveled the length of the Eastern Seaboard; and it has given life to the well-intentioned but overly ambitious dreams of several would-be entrepreneurs who thought, wrongly, they could make it into a restaurant or a museum. There have been broken promises, threats of lawsuits, fines, tough lessons learned in maritime law, destructive teenagers, even a gunshot. Now it just sits there, sunken in the Erie Basin with everyone wondering about it.
This maritime carcass once went by the bluntly unromantic name of Lightship No. 84. The keel was laid in another time, on Feb. 20, 1907, at the New York Shipyard Company in Camden, N.J. It was launched that June in the middle of the era of lightships, which were designed not for speed or long journeys but to anchor a few miles outside the nation's ports and coastal cities, the beacons atop their masts marking channels and dangerous shoals for oceangoing ships.
Most were taken out of service in the mid-60's. Today, three lightships live in New York Harbor: the Ambrose (No. 87) at the South Street Seaport; the Nantucket (No. 112), moored in Staten Island; and the Frying Pan (No. 115), docked at Pier 63 in Chelsea and available for parties. A romantic band of preservationists find something nostalgic in these old vessels with riveted hulls whose crewmen experienced a life of deep solitude rocking on the current.
''They were lighthouses that were out on the water,'' said John Krevey, who owns the Frying Pan. ''It's got the same romantic appeal as lighthouses; now, it's part of American folklore.''
Mr. Krevey, a talking encyclopedia of lightships, speaks with passion of the miserable life they held for those who worked and lived in them: ''It was the worst job in the Coast Guard.'' Crewmen stayed aboard for months, getting mail once every four weeks. They could see the lights of shore, and the big ships coming and going, but they never went anywhere.
Between 1856 and 1952, 172 lightships were built in the United States. By Mr. Krevey's count there are 15 left, 15 1/2 if you count the one in Red Hook.
A Foggy Assignment
Lightship No. 84 -- 135 feet long, weighing 683 tons -- was assigned to a station off Brunswick, Ga., until 1927 and then the St. John's River at Jacksonville, Fla., according to a Coast Guard history. Here it lighted the way for the freighters and grain carriers that brought goods to the American South, including the last merchant ships powered by sail. The assignment was more tiresome than most: the spot was often shrouded by fog, so half the time crewmen could not see anything, not even the lights of Jacksonville hinting at all the charms the city doubtless possesses. The ship sat there through the Great Depression and World War II, during which no one even bothered to equip it with a gun.
From 1954 until 1965, the lightship relieved others along the East Coast as they were serviced. In 1968, as maritime technology was making it and its dumpy sisters obsolete, it was donated to a seafaring school in Maryland. Most of its interior walls were removed and the craft was painted white. In 1987, according to the Night Beacon, the ship was sold and towed to Yonkers, where a new owner wanted to turn it into a restaurant.
What happened next is as foggy as the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of northern Florida. As Mr. Krevey and others who have followed the story of Lightship No. 84 tell it, whoever took the vessel north apparently went bankrupt and left it tied to a bulkhead near Hastings-on-Hudson, just north of the Tappan Zee Bridge.
That's where Jerry Roberts, who runs the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum on the West Side of Manhattan, first saw the ship. ''We were going up the river to do something, I forget what, and we saw this ship sitting there,'' he said. ''We found out the owners were in some kind of default.''
Mr. Roberts had a vision. ''We were going to get it operational and take it up and down the Hudson,'' he said, imagining a floating classroom. He paid $1,000. ''This thing was not being pumped out,'' he said. ''Kids were getting aboard and having campfires. The decks were rotten, leaking. We made several trips up there to pump the boat out. We posted one of our guards up there.''
One night, the pop of a gunshot echoed along the Hudson, startling the guard and worrying the new owner. Soon after the gunshot, in late 1991, Mr. Roberts and some of his volunteers towed the lightship down the Hudson. For three years, it lived on the West Side, sometimes lashed to the dock, other times nudging up against the gray steel hull of the Intrepid. A budget was outlined, plans were made, money was raised.
But then Mr. Roberts got lucky, and No. 84 got unlucky again: the museum was offered a fully restored operational lightship that had been docked in Portland, Me. This was the Nantucket, which today awaits her place as part of a new museum in Staten Island. Mr. Roberts bought it for $1 and started looking for someone to take the white ship. ''We tried like hell to find an honorable home for this thing.''
Two buyers eventually materialized, Michael Anzalone and Patrick King, although Mr. Roberts could not remember exactly where they came from. They said they wanted to make the ship into a restaurant, and the deal was closed on Sept. 29, 1994 for $20,000. ''These fellows sounded like they meant it,'' Mr. Roberts said. ''We made them sign a legal document that we had the right to approve the plans. They agreed to all of that, so they bought the thing.''
'A Rude Awakening'
A couple of weeks later, on Oct. 18, the new owners and their ship arrived at Caddell Dry Dock and Repair Company, a sprawling complex of gray metal buildings, towering cranes and red-and-black floating dry docks extending like fingers into the Kill Van Kull along the north shore of Staten Island. The president of the company, Steven P. Kalil, remembers vividly the lightship and its owners, because with their ship they brought him headaches.
''It was a rude awakening for me,'' he said recently, sitting in front of expansive windows framing the activity on his rain-slicked piers. His company usually repairs work boats, but every now and then he encounters ''the occasional nut that wants to own an old boat.'' He insists on being paid before it leaves the shipyard but gives a discount because ''you want to be kind to these people.''
Lightship No. 84 was towed into Dry Dock 3, the lock was closed and the harbor water ran out. Now human eyes could see the ship's hull. It was a mess -- coated with mussels and other maritime growth, the rivets and edges of the steel plates rusted. Sandblasting revealed dozens of small holes. Workmen filled the openings, coated the hull with epoxy and paint, and replaced the propeller shaft with a plug. The job took three weeks and cost Mr. Anzalone and Mr. King $33,000. And it was just temporary; the thing was still leaking.
The owners paid. Then, Mr. Kalil said, they did something strange: they asked if they could leave their ship with him.
He refused -- ''I'm not in the wharfage business!'' -- but the ship remained. ''I told them to get rid of it,'' he said. ''I called my lawyer, and I got a good lesson in maritime law.''
The lesson was this: if someone leaves a boat tied to your dock, it is your responsibility. You have to pump it out and keep it floating. The law, he was told, dated from centuries ago, when people were more likely to tie their boats to each other's docks.
Eventually, Mr. Kalil got a friend in Brooklyn to take No. 84 off his hands -- ''Thank God he's still my friend!'' -- and the friend managed to get the owners to take the ship away. But not far. One morning, there it was, tied up at the Revere Sugar dock.
Numerous efforts to locate Mr. Anzalone and Mr. King to discuss what happened next were unsuccessful. A business card left with Mr. Kalil that says ''Lightship Museum Inc.'' in fancy letters gives an address in West Hempstead, N.Y., and a Long Island phone number and lists Mr. King as associate director. But the phone number has been disconnected.
Assorted Red Hook residents all heard different versions of what happened after the ship reached their neighborhood, each involving some falling-out between the two men. But one thing seems clear: someone was supposed to pump out the ship, and did not. Down it went. Pfffffffffft.
An Industrial Ghost
The Rever Sugar plant is a spectacular remnant of Red Hook's industrial past, a towering mess of rusted bridges, conveyor belts and faded machinery, including a giant sphere in which sugar was once refined. It closed in the mid-1980's. The property is for sale, but it is hard to imagine a use for it, besides looking scary.
It was once owned by Antonio Floriendo, who was known as the Banana King of the Philippines and was a confidant of the Marcos family. Newspaper articles say Imelda Marcos was the company's secret owner, but this link was never proven.
Like a haunted house in the woods, the plant inspires all sorts of stories. Some in Red Hook talk about how, when the plant was still running, sugar ships came in and men wearing sunglasses arrived in limousines, went aboard and walked off with suitcases.
Revere Sugar declared bankruptcy in 1985; it exists now as little more than a legal entity. A lawyer for that entity, Joel Yunis, declined in a telephone interview to discuss the company, the Banana King or the Marcos family. Asked about No. 84's history, he replied angrily, ''This seems like a lot of trouble for a dopey ship.''
He said he just wants the lightship gone. ''Basically, it is a pain in our neck,'' he said. ''The city has asked us to raise it; we don't have the wherewithal to raise it.'' As he tells it Revere has had contact with at least one of the owners, who cannot afford to take it away, either.
The city has fined the company $2,500 and given it until next May to either sell the plant or get rid of the wreck. Jake Lynn, a spokesman for the city's Department of Small Business Services, estimated that it would cost $159,000 to raise the thing.
''Maybe it's a raw deal for Revere, but at one point they allowed the ship onto their property,'' he said. The city wants it removed for safety reasons, he added, ''in case fragments of the ship were to break off, or if someone were in the water in a boat and happened to hit it.''
The Coast Guard does not care because the ship is not in a major waterway and poses no danger to the environment. At least a few of the artists who populate Greg O'Connell's pier studios like the way it looks there, the masts tipping slightly. And Mr. Kalil seemed to relish telling his part of the story, which had a curious footnote.
Last year, the phone rang at the dry dock offices. It was Patrick King. He spoke to one of Mr. Kalil's managers, vaguely inquiring about this and that, asking how people were.
''He just wanted to shoot the breeze,'' Mr. Kalil said. He paused for a moment and then added: ''We thought it was kind of a strange phone call.''
Crabs and Cops
On a summer Saturday at dusk, a humid stillness envelopes the Warehouse Pier, the old sugar plant and the sunken ship. Even though the sun has slipped into the haze, it can still be felt here, its captured heat radiating off the asphalt and the stones.
The Warehouse Pier has been beautifully restored; the lightship and the sugar plant present a panorama of utter urban ruin and neglect. No one is around; it seems impossible that any humans ever venture here, although of course they do. It seems even more impossible that there is life down in the shipwreck, but life there is.
Blue-claw crabs walk sideways around the hull and in the silt around it. Blackfish and weird-looking pipefish, close cousins of sea horses, glide silently through the open door. And sometimes men in wet suits and masks arrive, moving in slow motion, shining beams of light.
They come here because, soon after the ship went down, some smart scuba commander realized that this would be a great spot for training. It's shallow, just about 20 feet deep, and the visibility -- ''viz'' in diver talk -- is four or five feet, pretty good for New York Harbor. New divers can get used to their equipment as they feel along the sides of the ship, preparing for the day when they are groping for something else, like a submerged car, trying to rescue those trapped within.
''It's easy, it's a controlled environment, you don't get the effects of the current,'' said Sgt. Robert Pecoraro, who made his first dive at the spot in 1999. ''We have them dive on the boat and try and make heads or tails out of it. We go all around it.''
The new divers do not actually swim inside: ''penetration'' dives are made only by the more experienced. The biggest trick for novices is stepping lightly. ''The bottom is silty; it's like muck,'' Sergeant Pecoraro said. ''If it's a new diver, they kick around a lot'' -- and everyone down there disappears into a liquidy black cloud.
But when the water clears, there it is, resting on the bottom: Lightship No. 84, the bane of disappearing restaurateurs and Staten Island dry dock moguls; the pride of Camden; the onetime secret escape spot for mischievous suburban teenagers; the refuge of Brooklyn crabs; the former home of lonely sailors who lived on it for months, going nowhere, waiting for their mail, watching the big ships go by.
Correction: August 31, 2003, Sunday A front-page article on Aug. 17 about an old lightship that sank off Red Hook, Brooklyn, mislocated Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., where the ship was once tied to a bulkhead. It is south of the Tappan Zee Bridge, not north.
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© 2009 USCG Lightship Sailors Association International, Inc. Larry Ryan, President