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BY ALINE REYNOLDS | Clear blue skies set a jovial tone Saturday for a host of Downtown residents and tourists looking to get out into New York Harbor.
A revamped 1885 sailing vessel was prepared to help them fulfill that mission.
The Pioneer, a two-masted, engine-powered schooner operated by the South Street Seaport Museum, embarked on its first public sail of the 2012 season on May 12. The boat had been inactive in 2011, when the museum was on the brink of closing.
The 102-foot-long vessel, the Seaport Museum’s only active sailing boat, recently returned to Pier 16 after undergoing a month of routine maintenance work at a ship yard in Staten Island. The upgrades, amounting to $65,000, included a new transmission system, a repainting and an inspection of its masts by the U.S. Coast Guard. The vessel also received a ballast — a stabilizing weight composed of lead — taken from the yacht of the late, renowned aviator, Amelia Earhart.
Fittingly named, the Pioneer paved the way for the charter schooner business in the 1970s, when it was donated to the museum by dock-builder Russell Grinnell. The vessel was originally built as a sand barge in Pennsylvania and later became an oil tanker before serving as a schooner.
“There’s something magical about her as a living piece of history,” said Jonathan Boulware, the museum’s waterfront director. “She’s still working for a living in the way that many sailing vessels worked for their livings in the waterways of the early U.S.”
The Pioneer, which carries a maximum of 40 passengers at a time, will make weekly tours through October around the Lower Manhattan waterfront, the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn and New Jersey shores. It will also host outings for students from New York Harbor School and a host of other city schools, including P.S. 116 in Jamaica, Queens and the Buckley School on the Upper East Side.
Passengers and crewmen alike were bubbling over with excitement during the first sail.
“It’s fantastic — everybody’s very excited,” said Michael Cohen, the Pioneer’s relief captain for 25 years. “A year off [the vessel] is way too much.”
Cohen, who led a training session that morning comprised of fire drills and other safety exercises for the volunteers, reviewed basic safety rules with the passengers before setting sail into the harbor.
The guests were asked to keep their feet on the deck at all times, refrain from climbing the rigging and avoid standing on the cabin tops.
While the lifelines can help with one’s balance while navigating the deck, they’re not built to prevent passengers from falling off the vessel, Cohen warned.
Then came the captain’s instructions about using the below-deck toilet.
“The number one rule is that nothing goes in [the toilet] that you have not already eaten,” said Cohen.
Minutes later, the Pioneer motored out of Pier 16 and plowed through the deep water range. As the passengers admired the views of Lower Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge, Jim Bising and the other volunteers were busy refreshing their maritime skills (the bulk of the Seaport Museum’s volunteer program was suspended for six months last year).
Bising, a volunteer since the 1990s, was scrutinizing the mast boot, which he said needed to be replaced in order to prevent leaks into the storage space below deck.
He and co-volunteer Linda Beal made plans to purchase cotton duck at a store on Canal Street following the sail, which they would use to hand-sew a new canvas cover to protect the Pioneer’s mast.
“It’s enjoyable, and it makes me feel that I’m doing something worthwhile,” said Bising of volunteering.
Volunteers were also helping to prepare for the schooner’s docking upon its return to Pier 16. The maneuver is so arduous that a former Pioneer captain used it as a good example of how to dock a vessel, according to volunteer Suzanne Semanson.
“Logistically, it’s a tight space to come into,” she said. “She has to spin almost 360 degrees on the spot to side up to be docked.”
Semanson, who joined the volunteer program in 2009, said being back on the Pioneer felt rejuvenating, particularly compared to “before, [when there was] this tense rift between the sailors and the administration.”
Volunteer Linda Beal also expressed excitement about being back on the schooner following the hiatus.
“It feels like a return to the Garden of Eden,” she said. “We are so blessed [to be] coming back to the people and this wonderful boat and the other boats as well.”
After the boat docked, passengers climbed out of the vessel with smiles on their faces. Chinatown resident Julie Fredrickson said she didn’t even know sailing tours in the city existed.
“It’s pretty impressive,” she said. “I have poked around the Seaport as a tourist in my years living in New York, but I’ve never actually gone out on anything.”
Grand Street resident Chinh Nguyen said the sail offered the perfect snapshot of the Tri-State area to her two Vietnamese sisters, who were visiting New York for a week.
Nguyen said she much preferred being amid crew members than hoards of tourists. “Usually you don’t see the crew on the boat, but here you have the feeling that you’re with them,” she said.
“I totally preferred this [to a ferry],” chimed in Nguyen’s sister, Trang Dai Nguyen.
Having taken many photos, she said, “We wanted to see everything, and we wanted to keep it and save it for a lifetime.”
The Pioneer hosts tours Tuesdays through Fridays, 3-5 p.m., 7-9 p.m. and 9:30-11:30 pm.; and weekends, 1-3 p.m., 4-6 p.m., 7-9 p.m. as well as on Saturdays, 9:30-11:30 p.m. To purchase tickets for a sail on the schooner, visit www.nywatertaxi.com/tours/pioneer-tour.