Volume 16 • Issue 16 | September 16 - 22, 2003


Taking a sail in Lower Manhattan


Speed, bonny boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward the sailors cry.
Carry the lad who’s born to be king,
Over the sea to Skye.

Well, not to Skye maybe, but how about to the Statue of Liberty?

“A sailboat is a wing,” Tom Berton is saying. “Half of it above water, half in the water below. It rides on the wind, or tacks against the wind. This is a solidly built deep vessel with a 10-foot [subsurface] draw.”

He is, if not the lad born to be king, the lad who feels like a king because he owns the Shearwater, and he is saying this as the Shearwater bobs up and down under the dispassionate gaze of the Lady With the Lamp, who looks almost near enough to touch. Actually she’s 150 or 200 yards away — the length of two football fields — because we’ve come as near to her as a private craft can get these days, to the edge of a ring of white post-9/11 security buoys set up by the Coast Guard or whomever.

The Shearwater, a stunning two-masted 82-foot schooner itself named after a bird, is to some minds the best-kept secret in New York. Berthed alongside the Hudson River in the North Cove marina across from the Winter Garden in Battery Park City, it is available for charters of all sorts and, in fair weather, does five two-hour or 90-minute sails a day open to all comers at $40 a head, $20 for children under 12 (chidlren under 5, free).

“This would have been a good year,” says Berton, “except for the rain.”

History has also played spoilsport.

Built in East Boothbay, Maine, toward the end of the Roaring Twenties, the Shearwater was delivered to its first owner, Charles E. Dunlap of the millionaire Dunlaps, in late September 1929, one month before the Wall St. crash that triggered the Depression. Seventy years later, Tom Berton, born and raised on Second Ave. at 10th St., offspring of a family of bohemian radicals, acquired the schooner and set it up for business at North Cove in June of 2001. Everybody knows what happened in September.

As we gently toss and roll in front of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island is to our right, Governors Island three-quarters to the left, and the Manhattan skyline directly behind us. If you turn to face it, study it, the World Trade Center would have bulked just to the left of the Woolworth Building “and up to that gap in the clouds,” says Berton.

The Shearwater, docked just about as far from the W.T.C. as we are from Lady Liberty at his very moment, had been covered with death ash just like much of Downtown. You can’t tell from the off-white sails or the scrubbed teak deck or the varnished mahogany housings everywhere, but the cleanup is still going on to this day.

“This is my third start-up year,” Berton says. “We’re still recovering from 9/11, with the help of a loan from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). I bought out my two partners. I’ve been out of pocket until now.”

Berton wants me to come up to the bowsprit and look aft. “We’re really a very wide boat — see? —16 feet wide. Can carry 48 people comfortably, can sleep 14.” Insists I climb down a spiral staircase, or whatever staircases are called on boats, to admire the galley, the marble toilet furnishings, the gleaming brass fittings and glistening woodwork everywhere.

The Shearwater is indeed beautiful, and its story is a good one — twice around the world, five times through the Panama Canal, anti-submarine patrol service in World War II — but so is Tom Berton’s own story.

“I’m a city kid, a street rat. I never had any idea — no clue — that you could do something like this, right here in the city. Even now, in the middle of some business, it’ll come to me: ‘Oh yeah, I can go sailing!’ ”

His father, the late Ralph Berton, author of “Remembering Bix: A Memoir of the Jazz Age” (Bix being Ralph’s childhood buddy, the great cornet player Bix Beiderbecke), was also, according to son Tom, a playwright, a music critic, a jazz critic, a blacklisted screenwriter, and a fellow who once shared a studio in Woodstock, N.Y., with Willem de Kooning.

“And my mother is retired architect Phyllis Hochhauser Berton. My uncle Vic Berton was one of the famous jazz drummers of his time and was also Bix’s first manager. My childhood was spent around guys like Dizzie Gillespie.” (Vic Berton, the Internet tells us, was indeed the drummer that Louis Armstrong thought the best in all Hollywood, and Berton and Armstrong, white man, black man, were once busted together for smoking pot.)

“Bible-bashing atheist Socialists is what my family all were. My uncles Eugene and Victor were named for [five-time Socialist candidate for president] Eugene Victor Debs, my grandmother’s hero.”

Hey, Tom, what would your grandmother in Odessa think about this here luxury sailboat?

He stared at the questioner. “How’d you know?”

Just a hunch.

“Yes! It was Odessa. Her name was Ida Cohen. Cohen got changed to Berton somewhere along the line.”

Tom Berton, who, despite being 38 and somewhat balding, has a face that lights up like a 16-year-old kid’s when he talks about sailing or about this boat, went to I. S. 70, to Stuyvesant (“Asbestos High”) when it was on 15th St., to Williams College (BA ‘87-’88 in Japanese/U.S. comparative studies), and before all that to P.S. 3, where a classmate was Angus McCamy, who is now one of the five alternating skippers of the Shearwater.

“I was raised in Lower Manhattan,” says McCamy. “I saw those towers going up, from when they were only a hole in the ground where the Washington Market had been. I was a little kid, but I remember images of toys in that hole, and I’m kind of grateful that I wasn’t here but out of town when the towers came down.

“I’ve been sailing, working in boats, since a kid — a jack of all trades, from engineering [the Shearwater’s 2500 square feet of canvas are supplemented by a recently rebuilt Detroit Diesel for windless power] to sailing to rigging.”

Darrin Rath, a second Shearwater skipper — and the one actually at the wheel on this expedition to Lady Liberty and back — was born in Malibu, California, has been sailing for 17 years, “mostly wooden vessels, out of Hawaii, Florida, New England,” and was working for New York Waterways until he a few weeks ago hitched on with Shearwater. “A magical boat,” Rath says.

There are two other crew people aboard: first mate Kristen Hill from Easton, Massachusetts — a skinny, handsome young woman in blue jeans who’s very busy with the sails, principally the big one that billows off the 70-foot mainmast; and Amanda Young, a still younger woman, who calls herself “the server” because that’s what she does.

The Shearwater offers champagne brunch cruises, happy hour cruises, all sorts of cruises. “Bush’s two daughters were on a sail with us this summer,” Berton says. “[Broadway choreographer] Susan Stroman took a party of 35 for a fireworks sail last July 4. We do wedding parties, bachelor parties, bachelorette parties, trips with musicians from the Brooklyn Philharmonic . . . “

Berton, fluent in Japanese, has served as a translator in New York courts. His “multiple businesses” background has ranged from export-import to real-estate development to proprietorship of retail shops (luxury handbags, skis, bikes, snowboards) in Banff, Canada.

One day 15 years ago he was down in Battery Park City “when I saw this gentleman struggling with a heavy bag. I helped him with the bag. There was a sail inside it — a sail for his boat, The Petrel, an ocean-going yawl.”

The gentleman’s name was Nick Van Ness. “To show his gratitude, he offered me a sail. I was absolutely blown away. Stunned. I’d known all my life that Manhattan was an island, but had never realized there was water all around …”

At that instant in Berton’s narrative, as the Shearwater points back toward North Cove it is rocked by a big wave. “See!” says Tom Berton. “It’s real. Really, really real.

“So I fell in love with sailing. That first summer I ended up working on Nick’s boat, sleeping on the boat, protecting the boat . I was a volunteer aboard Nick’s boat for the next 15 years. In 2000, Nick decided not to bring The Petrel back up to New York. I started to panic. I was pretty wealthy at that time. I was never a Hamptons person, but I did want a boat.”

And, through a broker, found this one.

“The keel of this boat was laid in April 1929. It was completed and delivered in September 1929. To think that in five months you could build something so beautiful . . . ”

Tom Berton was driven out of his Pearl St. apartment for a year by 9/11. He is now back in it, less his girlfriend. “I’m incredibly single.” Too much boat for her? “Yes, she can’t compete.”

Or maybe it’s that she didn’t want to keep taking off her shoes. Shoes with heels are strictly verboten aboard the Shearwater, not just spike heels, any heels. If you want to keep Tom Berton happy, wear sneakers. And pray for clear skies, no rain.

For Shearwater information, call (800) 544-1224, or click onto www.shearwatersailing.com.


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