A Well-Traveled Sailor Tackles Prospect Park

Under an angry sky, the young captain stood the helm surveying unfamiliar waters.

A gust kicked up and ruffled the green water.

But the voyage would not wait. The captain gave the word, the old hand in the windbreaker undid the line from the cleat, and the boat eased away from the dock, the captain’s hand steady at the wheel.

“It’s a very small lake,” the captain said, “so it’s more or less perpetually calm.”

From May to October in Prospect Park, a 30-foot wooden-decked electric tour boat, the Independence, patterned after one that plied these same waters in the 1860s, ferries visitors around the park’s serpentine 60-acre lake.

This year, the boat has a new captain. His name is Morgan Fiddler.

Mr. Fiddler, 26, grew up on the shores of the Chesapeake in Annapolis, Md., and has sailed most of his life. He has delivered boats up and down the Eastern Seaboard, faced 15-foot swells and 30-knot winds in Long Island Sound, fought through chop and fog in San Francisco Bay, tooled around the Virgin Islands, taught sail racing on both coasts and holds a Coast Guard master captain’s license.

But on the lake, there is lore to learn, and wildlife to identify, and a twisting waterway designed by Olmsted and Vaux with ever-changing vistas in mind.

So the other morning, Mr. Fiddler, looking quite nautical in a navy polo shirt, khaki shorts and topsider-like shoes so new he had put rigging tape on his bare ankles to fend off blisters, allowed a couple of passengers to ride along as he was shown the ropes by Bill Del Quaglio, 70, a retired subway-maintenance superintendent who has captained boats on the lake for five years.

(The opening of tour season has been delayed this year by intermittent equipment problems but is expected to start next weekend.)

Mr. Fiddler took the boat under an 1889 iron bridge with an ornate vaulted tin ceiling and out into the section known as the Lullwater.

Off the starboard side, about 10 basking turtles, red-eared sliders, some as big as dinner plates, lined up along a half-submerged log.

The waters of the lake hold formidable creatures. “We have a big snapper in here someplace,” Mr. Del Quaglio said.

“We also have some big koi,” Mr. Fiddler added. “I saw a two-and-a-half footer.”

The boat entered an area known to seamen as the Creek.

“Now we’re starting to wind out,” Mr. Del Quaglio said. “She’s going to open up to the left.”

The construction site for the new skating rink rose on the left, all backhoes and pipes. Up ahead, willows dipped their waving tresses almost into the water. A breeze rattled and stiffened the flag on the front of the boat. The sky darkened down further.

“Got some heavy winds coming,” Mr. Fiddler said.

“Morgan, try to bear to the right,” Mr. Del Quaglio said. “We’re going to come up to the turtle hotel.”

Near the portside lake bank, three hummocks of land loomed ahead in a narrow channel.

“You want to go through those islands,” Mr. Del Quaglio said.

“Sure,” said Mr. Fiddler, cutting the wheel to the left.

“This is my first time through these islands,” he added. “If I weren’t sitting here with Bill, I wouldn’t go in there.”

The passage between the islands narrowed to perhaps 30 feet. Mr. Del Quaglio took the wheel. Rain began to pour down. An egret took flight from a tree, and a great blue heron soared slow and low across the water.

A few minutes later, the rain thinned down to spittle. Mr. Del Quaglio handed the wheel back to Mr. Fiddler.

“Try to stay dead center here and you should be O.K.,” Mr. Del Quaglio said. “Right down the middle.”

Alas. In the center of the channel the boat ground to a halt, stuck on a sandbar. A shift of the passengers, and the boat lurched forward again.

Back at the dock, beside the 1905 beaux-arts boathouse that serves as a home to the park’s Audubon Center, Mr. Del Quaglio pronounced his protégé’s third run on the lake “good.”

“Only ran aground once,” Mr. Fiddler reminded him.

Mr. Fiddler’s real test still lay ahead: a live run with a boat full of passengers.

“Sometimes the parents keep them under control,” Mr. Del Quaglio said.

Mr. Fiddler said he felt up to the challenge.

“I like to consider myself a very patient person,” he said. “Basically, I’m a teacher.” And when the questions come fast and hard, “I’m always comfortable saying I don’t know something.”

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