The weather would break soon, everyone said, as they consulted uncertain forecasts on their smartphones. But tropical moisture streaming up the East Coast and an advancing cold front lashed the 24th annual Great North River Tugboat Race with rain and squally wind on Sunday.

The tugs’ horns moaned as they began the four-and-a-half minute run south to Pier 84 along the Hudson River shore of Manhattan. The uncertain course of Hurricane Matthew down off the Carolinas had brought a full house to the New York City cruise ship terminals, where the tugs plowed past.

Most of the slips were occupied, with Crystal Serenity, late of her historic Arctic cruise with every $21,000 cabin filled, and the massive Norwegian Breakaway. A pair of Aida liners, the German subsidiary of Carnival Cruises, was in town, operating as floating hotels for thousands visiting the city.

The Oct. 9 tugboat race was a fundraising event for the Working Harbor Committee, a nonprofit that works to educate the public about the New York and New Jersey maritime industry, and offers city youth a pathway into its well-paying jobs.

As race narrator John McCluskey told it on the spectator boat Sightseer VII, the race is another window into how the maritime trades built New York – and are playing a role in the new waterfront.

Across the river on the New Jersey side, 19th century railroads brought cargo to be barged across, loaded on ships or sent on to the New England states. Thousands of local mariners and longshoremen handled the traffic.

In the 20th century, transatlantic ocean liners were based on the West Side. The last of the breed, the 1950s SS United States, still survives, rusting at a Philadelphia pier. Preservationists still hope to bring her back to New York.

The passengers then stayed at midtown hotels, taking taxis to the ships. Neighborhoods around the piers had a deservedly rough reputation, hence the nickname Hell’s Kitchen. Into the 1970s, criminal gangs like the Westies still ruled, and streets west of Eighth Avenue down to the river were to be avoided.

Now Pier 84 is a park, public space between the Circle Line tour boat terminal at the foot of West 42nd Street and the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, the World War II aircraft carrier and tourist magnet.

The industrial-strength waterfront is long gone, but the maritime trades are enabling the new, people-friendly waterfront, McCluskey said.

New housing and jobs on both sides of the Hudson are connected by modern ferry services. As the tugboats steamed north to start their race, they passed tugs and barges that fuel the cruise ships, and others preparing to take sediment from dredging around the piers.

“People have moved on,” McCluskey said.

More people are coming to the waterfront too. By summer 2017 New York's ambitious Citywide Ferry project, aiming to link the boroughs to Manhattan with affordable $2.75 fares for the average worker, should begin operations.


Contributing Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been an editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for over 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.