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Phillip Lopate describes the shape of Manhattan Island as‘a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere’. This feeling of being tethered to the land, unable to get to sea, was a feature of New York life for much of the twentieth century. New York was an island without a coast. The West Side piers that once welcomed the Lusitania spent most of the twentieth century crumbling or behind barbed wire, while the East Side’s coves and points were cut off from pedestrians by six lanes of the Robert Moses-designed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive. It wasn’t much easier to reach the shores of Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, either: with a few exceptions, they were largely reserved for municipal or industrial use, and easiest to see from the Staten Island Ferry (en route to the borough with the most beaches). Now, slowly, the city is reclaiming its shoreline, with some spectacular results.

Registering Motion by Nicole Haroutunian

This piece is a part of WATERFRONTS, a series of personal essays engaging with the waterways of New York and/or Los Angeles, presented in collaboration with Trop.

OBJECT: Lightship Frying Pan, Hurricane Sandy, Currents, South Street Seaport Museum

BODY OF WATER: Hudson River, East River

I’ve worked on ships.

I can talk about ballast and ratlines and know that, dreamy as it sounds, starboard just means “right” like “port” means left, like “bow” means front and “stern” means back. If I imagine my body as a mast, my outstretched arms are a yard, a horizontal beam where a sail would hang. I’ve walked on decks, not floors, stepped over knee knockers rather than through doors. I can identify the correct tool for splicing rope, which isn’t called rope on a ship—it’s called a line. I’ve never called a ship a “she.” 

I’ve worked on ships, but I’m not a sailor. My motion sickness is debilitating. Hurtling forward is fine, but up and down is not; side-to-side is worst of all. And once the nausea hits, it can last for days. Nothing is curative—not salt air, not a stick of gum. Not standing still.

As a writer, editor and museum educator, I could have steered clear of a nautical life altogether. But as a New Yorker, avoiding the water isn’t so easy. Freelancers in this city take work where they can get it and that’s how I make my living—how could I close myself off to our sixth borough?

In 2009, I accepted a part-time position on the Hudson River. The Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, a decommissioned aircraft carrier, is docked there near 46th Street. During my interview, I was assured that the ship was too big for me to register motion. It seemed true—the Intrepid is as long as the Chrysler Building is tall and while the Hudson’s tides lapped at its hull, they didn’t push or pull it as far as I could tell. But occasionally, trapped on the indoor hangar deck over a beautiful weekend day, I would hope to feel the ship sway, to be able to say, “Actually I do feel a little sick.” The only time the Hudson shook me for real was during a training in the Museum’s submarine. It was as if my colleagues and I were trying to balance in a bobbing tin can, and after a few minutes, as the curator spoke, I edged out, hands over my mouth. I lasted on the Intrepid for a year which, if I remember correctly, is three months longer than its sailors were typically deployed.

The Hudson has been called New York’s first highway; the East River, down by the Seaport, was once known as the Street of Ships. By the time I worked at the South Street Seaport Museum, what used to be a forest of masts had been whittled down to just a few. The Peking is a tall ship made famous for a treacherous journey it took around Cape Horn. It remained docked just outside the Museum, but unlike the unmovable Intrepid, pitched and rolled on the East River waves. I’d teach students right up to the edge of the pier, but a coworker would have to take over as they stepped onto the ship. The Pioneer, a schooner, took crews of kids out into New York Harbor and hosted our staff happy hours and holiday parties. My colleagues sailed, glasses of wine in hand, while I remained on shore.

I always made a point of talking about how the Seaport district was built on landfill, how it wasn’t just by the water or about the water, but of the water, as well. In October 2012, during Hurricane Sandy, the East River rushed forth to reclaim its former territory, flooding the Museum’s basement completely and filling its lobby by more than six feet. The art and artifacts on higher floors were spared, but enough damage was done that now, more than two and a half years later, the Museum galleries remain shuttered. Who would have expected—although of course it makes sense—that it was the ships that fared the best. Built for water, they rose with it, rather than succumbed to its force. In the days after the Hurricane, subways still down, I took the East River Ferry across the water to volunteer in the recovery efforts. Ferry trips, stable and brief, are the only boat rides I can abide.

Besides the Intrepid and those ferry trips, the last time I remember being on a ship was for the Underwater New York launch party. I was newly a co-editor of this fledgling venture—a digital journal of writing, art and music inspired by real-life objects found in New York City’s waterways—and the prospect of having a party to celebrate its inception on a once sunken ship, the Lightship Frying Pan, was too perfect to pass up. When we first visited the venue to plan the event, it was a very still day. The Hudson was placid. I swear I didn’t feel so much as a pitch, so much as a roll. At the launch, as the rocking ship felled other, hardier party-goers, it must have been adrenaline that carried me through. The night was magical, right down to the end, when I started to feel the waves, a slow roil in my stomach.

Thankfully, though, it isn’t forward motion that gets me: Underwater New York is still sailing and I am still aboard.


Nicole Haroutunian's work has appeared in Two Serious Ladies, the Literarian, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Day One, and online at Tin House. Her story collection, Speed Dreaming, will be published by Little A in spring 2015. She works as a museum educator and is a co-editor of Underwater New York.