The Big Day

Thursday 1/18/07. The Whalen will finally go into dry dock. Perversely, balmy January ends the night before our trip to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Nonetheless, there’s a happy hubbub amongst the dozen or so guests aboard. It’s emotional day for many. The guests do meet n greet while I fuss over a recalcitrant generator that should go on as shore power is disconnected. Kitty Lulu, to her frustration, is locked into my cabin so she doesn’t leap back ashore – she figured out gangways weeks ago. Sal Catucci, CEO of American Stevedoring, who has generously provided us a free berth, shore power and stevedoring for months, tops it all off by driving out of the terminal to get some lost guests.

K-SEA is providing a free tow. I called them cuz they’re great people and good boathandlers, and because they, under their prior business name of Eklof, were the last company to run the Whalen as a tanker. Many of their people remember the boat, and fondly too. The tug Labrador Sea comes alongside around 0730 and the captain steps out of the wheelhouse and says “my father was the captain of that boat!” He’s recognized by Bill McGee, an Eklof retiree and former Mate on the Whalen, who is back aboard for the first time since she, and he, retired. It’s a big day for Bill, and I’m thrilled to meet him. He’s the man I knew was out there, the guy who loved the boat and saved her plans when Eklof/K-SEA shut her down, stripped parts off the boat, and pitched her records.

He called me a few days after Christmas, his son had found us while trolling the internet, and Bill said he had plans of the ship and that he would give them to us. “The plans should go with the boat.” I’m in tears after the call. The lack of plans complicated finding a shipyard during an 8 month effort; some yards didn’t want to lift her without the structural info contained in those plans. Once aboard, Bill swings right back into running the boat, tending lines in silent tandem with Tom Kerr, a recent transplant to Red Hook who came following the trail of his estranged merchant mariner father. Tom is writing a novel with maritime themes and writes poems about shipyards. He did a stint in the Navy and has helped get some things aboard the Whalen more shipshape.

Karen Dyrland and her husband John Weaver are up in the wheelhouse. Karen’s father Alf was captain from the late 50s until he retired in the late 70s. He was so attached to the boat that when he died 20 years later, his funeral program carried an image of him at the helm of the Whalen. Halfway to the Navy Yard, John tells me “the captain is back aboard.” Later I find that in the wheelhouse they’ve hung the photo used in Alf’s funeral program. I wonder what he would think of all this. They tell me that shortly before he died, he muttered “get the women off the boat, the Coast Guard is coming” and now there are lots of women aboard, and it’s a woman, me, who has decided to rescue his beloved Whalen.

0830 and we’re at the Navy Yard. A cluster of hard hats awaits us. The dock is flooded and the caisson (door) is open. A dinky block of wood floating on a slim line across the head of the dock indicates the centerpoint to align with the Whalens bow. The opening is too narrow for the tug to keep us on the hip, so the tug lands us on a fuel barge just outside the caisson, and moves to our stern to push us in. The Delaware’s tankerman helps out with lines even though he’s still in his slippers and it looks like we woke him. We slide in and the gantry crane soon swings over a man basket and lifts the guests away. My adrenaline wicks away rapidly. I’m beat. Wednesday night was a sleepless one due to the cold. I turned in too late to build a coal fire in the potbelly stove hooked up by John Weaver, and the little gas electric radiator didn’t beat the 20 degree temperature til nearly dawn. Fortunately, my boyfriend and firemeister John Gladsky arrives and builds a roaring fire. The rest of day will be about pumping out the graving dock.

The water drops rapidly, a testament to 19th century technology. The dock was completed in 1851 and still uses its original pumps, now electrified. Actually, it is using only one of the two pumps as one of the two water tunnels is clogged. GMD Shipyard now operates this dock, and all the other ones in the Navy Yard, as well as the one in Bayonne where the Intrepid will be repaired this spring. Their dockmaster pumps with care and stops when the dock is about half full. If the Whalen lands wrong, she could roll or be torqued out of shape. She’s down at the stern (heavy in the bum) as she’s basically three stories high there, and that weight is not offset by any cargo up forward in the tanks underneath that long deck. She has got to land evenly (both front to back and side to side). The crew pumps water into the forepeak (a vertical void at the bow of the boat) and when that’s not enough to get her bow down, the crane operator somehow fits two huge cement blocks between the railings and vents on the foredeck. That fixes the trim. A diver from Randive plunges in to see how she setting on the blocks. He reports that she’s not evenly down on them so the dockmaster dispatches the diver to slip planks between the hull and the blocks. He slowly works around the vessel, reporting regularly to the dockmaster at the top of the dock. It’s careful work and it shows how vulnerable a large steel thing can be.

Once she’s down on the blocks, I feel I can leave. I race off to Brooklyn Borough Hall where the Mayor’s office has called a meeting to discuss the new city plans for a sustainable future PLANYC 2030. To my puzzlement, neither this presentation, nor the powerpoint, nor their website make any mention of the waterways as a potential solution to our traffic and air pollution problems. In an archipelago, moving more people, vehicles, and cargo by water would be a green solution and a decongesting one; but it doesn’t seem to be on the radar. After a day outside, I wilt in the heat of the meeting room; so I slink off before the meeting is over to get a shower and a sandwich at a friend’s house. I drive back to the Whalen with the intention of writing a blog post but am wiped out. I crash into my bunk at 2200.

Photo 1: Stefan Falke

Photos 2 + 3: Carolina Salguero