Thursday, September 08, 2005

Ship watching from Brooklyn Heights

When I moved to Brooklyn Heights in 1983, one of the principal attractions the neighborhood held for me was that it sat atop a bluff overlooking what were then working piers serving breakbulk cargo ships, mostly in the South American trade, where ports were just beginning to develop container facilities. At the crest of the bluff, cantilevered over the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, is the Promenade, a walkway extending for about half a mile, shown below.

The Promenade commands a view of the piers below, the East River (actually a strait connecting upper New York harbor to Long Island Sound), and beyond, the Statue of Liberty, Lower Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge. Here is a view from the Promenade looking toward the South Street Seaport on the Manhattan side, with the Woolworth Building on the left and the Municipal Building (once described as "the most outstanding example of Stalinist Gothic architecture in America") to the right. Note the Danish sail training ship docked at the end of Pier 17.

Unfortunately, shipping economics scotched my dream of living in a place overlooking working docks, as, shortly after I moved, the neighborhood paper announced the closing of the piers below the Heights. The triumph of containerization meant that piers without many acres of storage space in front of them were obsolete. For several years, the piers were used as parking spaces for ships awaiting sale to new owners or for scrap, including a former Matson liner that ended its years of service as part of the Chandris cruise fleet, a World War II vintage C-4 type freighter that had been converted to a container ship, and the battleship Iowa, which had been reactivated and was awaiting permanent port facilities on Staten Island (Iowa was later withdrawn from service and the Staten Island base canceled). After a few years, buildup of silt around the piers precluded even their being used for this purpose. The City now intends to turn the piers, and the land between them and the Heights, into a waterfront park.

Despite the loss of the piers, the Promenade is still a good location for ship watching. On Saturday mornings and evenings through late spring, summer and early fall, a parade of cruise ships can be seen entering and leaving port. On occasion, cargo vessels sail right by the Heights, entering or leaving the East River en route to docks at the former Brooklyn Navy Yard, or to ports on Long Island Sound. A couple of mornings ago, I rose early and decided to walk on the Promenade before breakfast. As I was returning, I spotted a small cruise ship emerging from behind Governors Island, which lies below the tip of Manhattan, preparing to sail up the Hudson.

This vessel has the typically motor yacht-like look of today's cruise ships, but is trimmer and more attractive to my eye than the much larger vessels that now dominate that trade. After getting this photo, I returned to my apartment and was just sitting down for breakfast when I glanced out the window and saw something that made me dash out the door, camera in hand, and back down to the Promenade. Another small cruiser was coming in, but this was a much older vessel, of a type seldom seen here.

Note the much more "shipshape" lines of this vessel, which I would guess to be of late 1950's or early '60's vintage. Alas, most of its kind are now gone. Update: I now know she was either Saga Rose or Saga Ruby.

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