Shipwrecked in Manhattan

His sailboat sank in the middle of the Atlantic, but how he found his way back to sea was even more unexpected.

Published June 6, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

When I was sailing alone across the Atlantic a few years ago, from England to Maine, my 40-year-old, 27-foot-long wooden boat sank. I'd lived aboard it for seven years and it was carrying not only me but everything I owned in the world.

I was picked up by a giant container ship and dropped off in Galveston, Texas. I knew nobody in Galveston, nor in Maine, where I'd planned to live aboard my boat, so I got on a Trailways bus to go stay with my cousin Matt, who lived in Manhattan. A few days later I found myself enjoying a rather nice apartment on West 87th Street, a few yards from Central Park. Few shipwreck survivors can have done as well, and so quickly.

Matt was a prince. His couch became "mine," and he offered to lend me some money, for I had come ashore with $67 and a credit card with a $200 limit, now used up on my bus fare. But I didn't want to borrow, so I went out to look for work.

I bought the Times and read it with a desperate sense of déjà vu. I'd lived in New York before, driving a cab while trying to write, though it was more years away from earning my living as a writer than I ever imagined. Ten years later, that summer of my shipwreck, I had come ashore with a damp, half-written novel. I had hopes for it but knew it might be some time before that brought me any money. I knew only that I had to start earning right away.

Life afloat, even penniless, is quite different from life ashore. You carry your home and your few precious possessions with you like a turtle's shell, and you can drop your anchor off the nicest real estate in the world: Bar Harbor, Marblehead, Newport, Palm Beach, Mustique. And if your boat is old and beautiful -- and especially if it doesn't have an engine -- then when you row ashore at these places, you're greeted as a salty character. People ashore fantasize about your life; they want to talk to you, and entertain you. At times, life is almost glamorous when you live aboard an old wooden boat.

But come penniless ashore off a bus, and you are a long way from glamour. Particularly in New York.

I couldn't even get through the ads in the Times. I was sick with the loss of my boat and the full knowledge of what this had done to my life. I could not have been more reduced without beginning to lose body parts.

In this awful state, I left the newspaper in Matt's apartment and wandered west. I headed instinctively for the water and soon reached the Hudson River. I found the 79th Street Yacht Basin and I stood on the wrong side of the chain-link fence looking at the boats tied to the dock and keened for my sunken home and my lost identity.

It was early August and hotter than the tropics. I walked south and stayed as close to the river as possible. I didn't want to look inland. I walked all the way down to the Battery and headed up the East River.

In the middle of the afternoon I reached Pier 11 off South Street Seaport. The Seaport was not as developed then as it is now, and Pier 11 was just a pier, splintered and run-down. The Circle Line ferries docked on one side, and on the other side that afternoon lay a tired, hog-backed yacht named Ventura, rocking in the slop and the river tide. It was 48 feet long and its wooden deck looked as sooty as a subway platform. Beside the boat was a sign advertising fabulous lunchtime and evening cruises aboard the Ventura. One of the owners, a guy named Stuart, was aboard. He was fixing something. I asked him if he ever needed another captain.

"You got a license?" Stuart asked me.

He meant the U.S. Coast Guard operator's license, which is what the captain of any boat in American waters must have to carry paying passengers. I told him I had a 100-ton ocean operator's license, which is a pretty good one to have if you're looking for work in the water trade.

"I might need someone," said Stuart, as if thinking about it for the first time. He asked me to come out on that evening's cruise so he could see if I knew what I was doing. "Come back at 7. We go out then."

It was a three-hour cruise. We left the dock with 25 people aboard. There was not enough wind to sail so we motored, although Stuart's crew, a boy and a girl, raised sails for the passengers.

There was thick, nonstop traffic on the water: mostly tugs, but also inbound and outbound shipping -- picturesque, but tricky for an auxiliary-powered sailboat. Captains strictly observed rules of the road, and also stated their movements in bursts over the VHF radio. Ventura's radio was beside the wheel and turned on at all times.

"Ventura, this is the Barbara Moran coming up the Buttermilk, passing you two whistles."

"Yeah, Barbara Moran, I gotcha. Two whistles, Cap," Stuart answered.

At the south end of the East River, off Governor's Island, the watery equivalent of the intersection of two interstates, Stuart told me to take the wheel and went below. I thought of David Niven's story of Humphrey Bogart giving him Santana's helm as a ship bore down on that yacht while Bogart went below on some pretext to see how Niven would handle the situation. I guessed Stuart was down in the dark cabin watching me and peering out the portholes at the traffic. But an hour and a half later he came topside blinking and looking around. He'd fallen asleep.

About 9 o'clock the evening started to cool down, and it became breathtakingly beautiful out on the water. The sky and the dark moat around Manhattan turned indigo above and below the glowing horizons, and the water surface on the river and the Upper Bay became shot with city lights. The dark parabolic shapes of the sails cut across the views of the Brooklyn Bridge, Liberty and Ellis islands and the whole twinkling skyline. Passengers flaked out on the deck and cabin roof. The dirty boat turned into a cool magic carpet, and the cruise became, as advertised, fabulous.

Stuart hired me, and I took Ventura out for its lunchtime and evening cruises three days a week until the weather turned in September. I made $100 a day, cash in my pocket. I ran aground off Liberty Island one night, but I got the boat off. A drunken passenger fell overboard, but I got him back aboard. Some nights Matt came out with his girlfriend, Nancy. No matter how hot it was on the steaming streets, or coming downtown on the subway from Matt's apartment on West 87th Street, out on the water it was always cool.

I got to know a much different, ineffably more beautiful New York than the one I'd once hated as a cab driver. I got to know the rivers and their strong tides, and the view of the bridges passing slowly above the masthead. Over the radio came the names of the city's waterfront character: the Red Hook and Buttermilk channels; the Arthur Kill and the Kill van Kull; the Navy Yard, the Narrows, Sandy Hook, and Ambrose; Hackensack, Weehawken, and Passaic; Hell Gate and Robbins Reef. New York took on the smack of seaport, and over this was layered the romance of those million-dollar views. As we rode the tide up the Buttermilk and emerging from behind Governor's Island, the city always came into view like a movie, its loveliest, fabled best self.

I shipwrecked lucky that summer. I found my way back to the sea through Manhattan. Part of what I'd lost when my boat sank came back into my life.

By Peter Nichols

Peter Nichols spent 10 years at sea working as a professional yacht captain, living and cruising aboard his own small wooden sailboat, before turning to writing full time. He is the author of "Sea Change; Alone Across the Atlantic in a Wooden Boat," and the novel, "Voyage to the North Star." His third book, "A Voyage for Madmen," was recently published by HarperCollins.

MORE FROM Peter Nichols

Related Topics ------------------------------------------