On New York’s Low Seas: Day 2

A Week on the Water

A gull.

On City Room: Corey Kilgannon’s dispatches from the city’s waterways.

If the Statue of Liberty ferry passed right by Lady Liberty and took a five-minute detour farther to the west, the tourists – and even most seen-it-all New Yorkers – would get an eye-opening take on glamorous New York Harbor’s gritty, hard-working side.

This would include the Kill Van Kull, the waterway that runs between the north shore of Staten Island and the southern tip of Bayonne, N.J., as well as Newark Bay, around the corner from New York Harbor.

Shielded from the harbor by Bayonne and Staten Island, these are gritty, industrial waterways, with very few sightseers or pleasure boaters.

A stretch of the Kill Van Kull is a veritable tugboat repair shop. Huge tugs rest on mammoth flotation platforms that hoist them out of the water for workers to access. Many active tugs are docked here too, and their captains pace the decks holding two-way radios, waiting for the next assignment.

On Tuesday, near the tugs, a crew of welders repaired a 100-foot-long steel barge. The workers wore protective hoods and masks and climbed the beams like a high-wire troupe. They used arc welders and torches to put a new hull and sides onto the damaged barge, fastening steel plates up to two inches thick onto its steel-beam frame.

“Then a huge crane comes and lifts it into the water,” said a supervisor, Ramon Acosta, 58.

Under the Bayonne Bridge, a turn leads into Newark Bay, where the vessels are of a massive scale that rivals even the skyscrapers of downtown Manhattan. The tankers, which hail from far-flung countries, are piled high with metal storage containers the size of tractor-trailers.

They are escorted by teams of tugs to unloading stations, where huge structures with outstretched arms pick off the metal containers. This is done by an operator in a glass-bottomed gondola that extends out over the deck. Like in an arcade game, the operator lowers a set of claws that carries the containers onto short stacks onshore.

The channels in this area are upward of 40 feet deep, but they constantly grow more shallow over time, necessitating dredging. On Tuesday, several cranes worked away, plunging scoopers into the water and lifting tons of silt into containers on barges. The crane operators worked from images of the bottom taken by survey boats. A drill-rig pounded away nearby, to loosen the rocky bottom, said Nick Ripley, 28, an engineer on the Jay Michael, a tugboat that supports a crane dredging around the clock.

Wearing a hard hat, wraparound sunglasses and a grease-smudged life jacket, Mr. Ripley said he works for 20 days at a time, and lives in the tug with three other crew members.

“We got a 40-inch flat screen in here,” he said, motioning up toward the red-painted tower on the tug.

There are a hearty few recreational boaters around here, including the roughly 100 members of the 100-year-old Robbins Reef Yacht Club in Bayonne, directly across the river from a freighter unloading station. Members have learned to tolerate the smell of oil, and the soot on their boats from fuel residue released by low-flying planes accessing Newark Liberty International Airport nearby.

Many of the members fish among the tankers, tugs and barges, and crab in the murky waters, said John Youngclaus, the club’s vice-commodore.

“I wouldn’t be too crazy about eating it, but they do,” he said. “No one swims here, but people have fallen in.”

He pointed out their three-story clubhouse, the top floor of which goes unused.

“It’s haunted,” Mr. Youngclaus said. “A ghost named Vance.”

Mr. Youngclaus said he was cleaning up the bar one night when he sensed that the ghost was behind him.

“I ran out the door, left all the money and everything else behind,” he said.

Just off the north shore of Staten Island lies Shooters Island, inhabited only by a wide variety of birds and greenery, and lined with decaying wooden structures.

On the Staten Island coastline nearby lies a lonely, neglected passenger ferry with the words “You Go Girl” scrawled in large bubble-lettered graffiti on the side. Farther to the west, the shoreline is lined with gnarled, rusted steel old ships and cranes and other maritime equipment. An osprey with a fish clasped in its talons flew back to its nest, high atop a rusted metal structure that looked like an old ship’s boiler.

Heading south along the western shoreline of Staten Island, the deep waterway is lined with old industrial buildings and with active oil refineries and storage facilities. There are scant signs of residential life, save for the odd fisherman perched on decrepit wooden bulkheads. On a bridge that spanned the waterway, a seemingly endless freight train rumbled overhead.

“This is a busy industrial port,” Mr. Ripley said. “You got to be on your toes all the time because a lot of things are always going on.”

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