Editor’s Note: This article is written by Laurie Gwen Shapiro, author and filmmaker. Shapiro’s first non-fiction book (about a teen stowaway who swam the Hudson River to join Commander Byrd’s famous 1928 expedition to Antarctica) is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster in late 2016. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter.
Not every New Yorker wants to head to the Hudson River and join a flotilla at 5 a.m., but there’s a certain breed of enthusiastic types that would rejoice in the opportunity. Full disclosure: I’m one of them.
Yesterday afternoon in my Lower East Side apartment building’s laundry room I read a curious Facebook post during during the last minutes of the spin cycle. Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, the only transatlantic ocean liner in service between Southampton and New York City, was coming to town. The organization, with a long history in New York City including the building of landmarked architecture and 175 years of Transatlantic crossings, was being celebrated on the water by a flotilla comprised of historic vessels including oil tanker Mary A Whalen, the tugs Eric R Thornton and the Tug Pegasus and the Nantucket Lightship, and rigid-hulled inflatable Coast Guard gunboats. In addition, the Fireboat John J Harvey was allowing landlubbers like me to come along for free if they were willing to get up before the crack of dawn.
I put out a cheery call on Facebook to my friends. Despite mostly silence, there was some (initial) strong interest from a few rabid New Yorkers I suspected might bite. However when 5 am rolled around, only my diehard enthusiast PTA pal Rebecca (whose daughter, also an enthusiast, sold the most Girl Scout cookies in Manhattan this year) was at Pier 66 just north of Chelsea Piers at 26th Street and the Hudson. Rebecca and I high-fived each other for the follow-through between sips of coffee from our thermoses. Coffee in, we then introduced ourselves to about 40 smiley types joining the volunteer crew of nine. The sun rose and it was a comfortable 73 degrees, with perfect sailing conditions.
As we waited to depart, most of us took selfies in the wheelhouse with the super-friendly Captain Huntley Gill, who has a long involvement with architectural restoration and is part owner of the ship, and was eager to explain its history. After my selfie, I chatted with D’Ann and Paul Caron, a Boston couple who had driven overnight in a minivan with 16-year-old triplets Laura, Benjamin and Daniel. Apparently this roadtrip was “nothing” for them and there were two more kids in the cheery family, and all had travelled to Antarctica by expedition ship together with no fights.
I exchanged cards with Dick Solay, the charming volunteer editor of The SPLASH, the newsletter of the Harvey, and I also said hello to retiree Bill Bradshaw and his fellow grinning kayaking partner. “It was Jim’s idea and I could see no reason to say no! We love the city’s rivers, we are kayakers—or as some people call us, ‘speedbumps.’” He added with another grin, “Honestly we’re up for anything fun.”
Despite the astounding level of group excitement this early in the morning, clearly the most excited of all passengers was 7-year-old Dylan Bailey, who, in a mandatory yellow life vest issued to those under 13, answered questions by whispering answers to his mother Caroline. Dylan’s favorite ship in history, Mom relayed, was the Titanic. What thrilled him most about this outing was seeing the Queen Mary 2 – a ship he knew all about. His favorite book with Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey by Maira Kalman – about the very boat we were on – and did I know that? I did! He smiled.
I heard multiple giggles when the affable skipper announced just before our departure at 5:45 am, “In case you have forgotten it is Bastille Day, so the rest of the trip will be in French.” As you can now safely glean, not a single soul voluntarily on a flotilla at 5 am has a sour attitude.
We headed south in the direction of the Statue of Liberty and caught sight of the majestic Queen Mary 2 near the Verrazano Bridge. We could see the other boats we had read about headed her way, and soon all aboard were very, very wet as our fireboat sprayed water in honor of the more celebrated vessel. Deafening horns tooted from every direction, but no one complained, for all agreed this was a fine tribute to the original voyage made by Cunard’s first flagship, Britannia, who had made the first scheduled mail and passenger service across the Atlantic on July 4, 1840.
The Harvey has a long relationship with Cunard ships, and back in the 1930s greeted the original Queen Mary ocean liner with water sprays. The first modern fireboat of the Fire Department of New York has a pumping capacity of 18,250 GPM. She was built in 1931 at the Todd Shipping Yard, in the once illustrious Gowanus Bay, where the world’s most famous boats and the swanky Gatsby era’s finest yachts were serviced, including Commander Richard Byrd’s ships for both his North Pole and South Pole expeditions.
The Harvey is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, and was the longest serving firefighting vessel in the FDNY serving from 1931 to 1991. The 130 x 28 x 9’6” ship of riveted steel has, from the get-go, reached disaster at a speed of 15 knots. She is still the fastest fireboat in the world, and has attained 20 MPH (17.3 knots). Another record: she is the oldest firefighting vessel on the Hudson River. She was retired in 1991, restored by volunteer enthusiasts, and as documented in Maira Kalman’s picture book Dylan Bailey knew so well, was called back to service as Marine Company No 2, pumping water for firefighters at Ground Zero. The noble crew was widely honored for their service.
We saw many waving from the happy Queen Mary 2 passengers, and we waved back, and they waved back again until it was time to go.
More festivities are planned today to bid Queen Mary 2 on its voyage back across the Atlantic: according to the Cunard organization, the closing bell of the New York Stock Market will be rung this afternoon by Captain Kevin Oprey; and, at approximately 9:30 pm, a light and music display will mark the finale of the celebrations for Cunard Organization and the Queen Mary 2–public viewing is available from Battery Park.
I’ll leave these events to other eager beavers. Let’s just say I’m planning on a very early night in bed.
Next, read about the Remnants of Chelsea’s Pier 54, A Cunard-White Star Line Pier With a Tragic History. Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s first non-fiction book (about a teen stowaway who swam the Hudson River to join Commander Byrd’s famous 1928 expedition to Antarctica) is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster in late 2016. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter.