Tugboats, Fireboats, Lightships, and Lighthouses!

It’s that time of year again. Back to school? No! It’s time for the tugboat races!

This year New York City’s tugboat races will be held on October 9 (traditionally, they are held before Labor Day). If you are a member of a tugboating family or connected with the port, you may get an invite to be on board a tug for the races. Not connected? No worries. You can watch from on land (the race runs from Pier I at West 70th Street to Pier 84 at West 44th Street/Hudson River Park) or from another boat. The Working Harbor Committee commissions a spectator boat for the race. Last year, my family joined the race on the historic fireboat John J. Harvey. Although the Harvey didn’t win the race, the nose-to-nose pushing or line-toss contests, we all agreed afterwards that it had been a terrific day out. 

I don't know if you've noticed, but children's book authors seem to have an inordinate enthusiasm for tugboats. Parents who live in the New York metropolitan area are in luck, because New York Harbor is full of tugboats and other interesting ships. The books I discuss in this post are all set in New York Harbor. With most of them, you can read the book and then field trip to see its main character!

The Fireboat John J. Harvey, main character of Maira Kalman's book Fireboat, docks at Pier 86 in Manhattan.

The Fireboat John J. Harvey, main character of Maira Kalman's book Fireboat, docks at Pier 86 in Manhattan.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s website names New York “the largest port on the East Coast, and the third-largest in the nation.” Why don’t people who live in the area see this activity? During the 1960s, commercial shipping moved from highly visible locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn and New Jersey to other parts of New York harbor which could better accommodate container ships. Most activity centers in New Jersey at Elizabeth, Port Newark, and Bayonne, with smaller operations in Brooklyn and Howland Hook. The best way to see the port in action is to get out on the water. Try taking the Staten Island Ferry (it’s free!). Some other boats you can take are:

Take along Donald Crews’ terrific picture book, Harbor. Crews used New York Harbor as the basis for his illustrations, and you will be able to match the pages in the book to actual locations in the harbor. If you’re not sure what kind of ship you’re looking at, turn to the last page, which shows the silhouettes of the different types of boats you’re likely to see. Specific ships to look out for are the Fireboat John J. Harvey, heroine of Maira Kalman’s book Fireboat, and the Lightship Ambrose, which was the setting for Brian Floca’s wonderful Lightship. If you’re lucky, you may see a “car float”—a train on a barge crossing between Brooklyn and New Jersey.

This spread from Donald Crews' book Harbor is set at a Brooklyn cargo terminal, looking toward the Staten Island Ferry terminal at the bottom of Manhattan.

This spread from Donald Crews' book Harbor is set at a Brooklyn cargo terminal, looking toward the Staten Island Ferry terminal at the bottom of Manhattan.

If you’d like to know what New York Harbor was like when the Manhattan, Hoboken, and Jersey City piers were open, try Little Toot, the story of a mischievous—and ultimately heroic—tugboat. You can also turn to Richard Scarry—try pages 56-7 of Cars and Trucks and Things that Go or the “B” spread from ABC Word Book. I am not kidding, it was that busy.

New York Harbor’s inner harbor—where Little Toot does his figure eights—opens to a lower bay. The Lightship Ambrose spent a good portion of her career stationed off Sandy Hook, which is on the outskirts of the entrance to the lower bay. In this picture, the Ambrose shines her light so that the Queen Mary can safely pass.

Want to see today’s Queen Mary? Visit Governor’s Island while she’s in port. Departure time from New York is usually between 4 and 6 p.m. on alternate Sundays, if you’d like to get your family a prime viewing spot on the waterfront.

Want to see today’s Queen Mary? Visit Governor’s Island while she’s in port. Departure time from New York is usually between 4 and 6 p.m. on alternate Sundays, if you’d like to get your family a prime viewing spot on the waterfront.

New York Harbor’s most famous lighthouse is of course the Little Red Lighthouse, star of Hildegarde Swift and Lynd Ward's The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge. After you’ve read the book, you can go see the lighthouse in Riverside Park—and even get inside if you go to the yearly festival! The festival, usually held in September, features tours, presentations by park rangers, and readings of the book.

The outings I’ve mentioned up until this point are good-weather only. Here are two bad-weather marine options:

  • Liberty Science Center’s Our Hudson Home exhibit showcases the natural and commercial features of New York Harbor. You can see (and touch!) examples of the area’s marine life and also try your skill at stacking containers on a modern container ship.
  • The Staten Island Children’s Museum’s Block Harbor room features a ship's bridge, a galley, and a real ship’s bell. If clouds give way to sun, children can captain the different stationary boats in the museum’s Sea of Boats playground and sound the foghorn. Beeyonk!!!