WSJ Features Sailing Heals – “Magic of the Sea”
You might wonder what there is in common about a 100-year-old barge parked along the Brooklyn waterfront and a sleek sailboat that takes cancer survivors for rides past the Statue of Liberty when it’s not racing the Caribbean. I’m sure the people who invited me aboard the vessels are wondering just that, since it undoubtedly never occurred to them that they’d be sharing a column.
However, two things unite the vessels, and I believe they justify discussing them in the same breath. First, though perhaps not foremost, I missed both boats when I was invited along for rides.
Wooden barges once were a common sight in New York City’s waters, but, alas, this is the last of its kind and is now a floating museum. It happened to be traveling from lower Manhattan back to its berth in Red Hook last month. I can’t remember what prevented me from going along, but it must have been important, because, like any self-respecting kid, I’m not going to pass up a free barge ride without a certain measure of anguish and disappointment.
Ditto the sailboat. At the end of May, Sailing Heals, an organization that takes cancer patients, their families and caregivers for therapeutic rides in New York Harbor and other ports around the nation, asked me to join them.
While I couldn’t make the sail that evening, I hitched a ride on the same sailboat, the Black Watch, a lovingly restored, 68-foot wooden 1938 sailboat, the next night.
Which leads me to the second thing their unique stories and missions have in common: the sea. It’s easy to forget that New York City owes its importance to the ocean. The Atlantic, per se, isn’t lapping the shores of the Battery, at least not yet. Islands, land masses commonly known as New York and New Jersey, and its rivers and estuaries conspire to shelter us from the sea’s more antisocial mood swings.
And New York City’s glass and granite canyons have a singular, self-centered talent for erasing almost all memory of nature—in a way other port cities, such as San Francisco, do not. But as soon as you get out on the harbor, you’re reminded that New York exists by the ocean’s grace, and not the other way around. And also that the water, its power and immensity, has hardly less power to stir than if you were sitting along the beach in Maine, Santa Monica or…feel free to insert your own personally meaningful aquatic destination.
Admittedly, my sail wasn’t the same experience as if I’d gone the night before. Rather than cancer survivors, most of the guests were healthy and mostly male—several of them cigar-smoking friends of Panerai, an Italian watchmaker that sponsors yacht races and that started Sailing Heals.
Nonetheless, I managed to catch up by phone with Mylissa Tsai, a two-time breast cancer patient who’d been invited by Panerai down to Antigua in April for its 2012 Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta (and who, by the way, was scheduled to run last weekend’s NYC Triathlon). I was less interested in her experiences in competitive sailing than in the power of the sea to put things in perspective—even if you’re well, but I suspect that much more profoundly if you’re sick. I certainly felt something of its spell, even though we sailed no further than Staten Island.
Ms. Tsai explained that part of the ocean’s allure is that it lends itself to metaphor. “Like the water, life is full of surprises,” she explained. “I was an active, healthy 38-year-old woman with no family history. There are cool, welcoming breezes and wild gusts of wind. With love and support we can manage anything life throws at us.
“There’s some magic to being on the water,” she went on. “It washes away everyday responsibility. It was also perfectly timed: right after my surgery. Being on the water, you escape. You’ve left land. It’s a time for reflection. There’s complete clarity on the horizon. It allows you to think what’s important to your own personal and mental wellness.”
To call my visit to the barge a time for reflection wouldn’t be quite accurate; and it certainly wouldn’t do justice to the copious talents of David Sharps, the gentleman who literally rescued the barge, the Lehigh Valley Railroad No. 79, from the muck in Edgewater, N.J. Built in 1914 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it last worked the harbor around 1960, one of 5,000 such barges that once carried coffee, sugar and just about everything. The barges were made obsolete by the construction of the city’s bridges and tunnels.
“I got this boat for $1,” Mr. Sharps remembered of the early-1980s deal. The barge became a museum in 1986. “It was stuck in the mud—300 tons of mud. Eight feet of mud. Even my best friends only came around once.”
While the ship (Can you call a barge a boat? Probably not.) is based in Brooklyn, it gets around, though only because of the kindness of Pegasus, a 1907 tug boat with which it has a symbiotic relationship. Together, the vessels recently received a $140,000 grant—to repair the tug’s deck and preserve the barge wall’s historical markings—from Partners in Preservation, a partnership between American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
But as appealing as the barge now is—skylights illuminate its rough-hewn floors and the walls decorated with bells and nautical paintings—the barge’s main attraction is Mr. Sharps himself. He developed his love for the sea at 21 when he took his juggling act aboard cruise ships. On the day of my visit, he was entertaining a highly participatory audience from P.S. 172 in Sunset Park. He was teaching them the history of New York Harbor and balancing giant jugs on his head, though not simultaneously.
“Would you like to see something else?” he shouted.
“Would you like to go back to school?”
He and his family have lived on the barge since 1994. “When my kids wake up in the morning and eat their cereal,” he told the schoolchildren, “they look at the Statue of Liberty.” He pointed straight across the harbor at the great lady.
“I love what I do,” he went on, meaning using his hands in his decades-long effort to resurrect the Lehigh Valley No. 79. “In your life, it will be your challenge to find something you love to do and put all your energy into it.”
He might also have added that it doesn’t hurt your kids’ chances of getting into a competitive college if they can give a barge as their home address. His daughters—Dalia, 20, and Sophie, 18—attend Vassar and Connecticut College.
“I wrote about gentrification in Brooklyn,” Dalia explained of her application essay.
“I wrote mine about growing up on a boat,” Sophie said.
A version of this article appeared July 10, 2012, on page A16 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Magic of the Sea.