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The Fleet Is In!

Posted May 16th, 2011 at 09:15 AM by chas
Updated May 16th, 2011 at 09:24 AM by chas

“I spied as I peeped out into the Bay something resembling a wood of pine trees trimmed…I thought all London was afloat.”
--Continental Soldier, Maryland Regiment

“And its all for me grog
Me jolly, jolly grog
All gone for beer and tobacco!
And I spent all me tin
Down on South Street drinking gin
Now its over open water I must wander!”
--Nineteenth Century Sea Chantey

IN JULY OF 1776, the British Navy of about 12,000 sailors and marines invaded Brooklyn, landing an army of about 32,000 soldiers in Gravesend Bay to the south. The new Declaration of Independence was read out to the ranks of the colonial army for inspiration. Scouts from Colonel Hand’s First Pennsylvania Continental Regiment were the first soldiers to observe this massive eighteenth century ‘D-Day’ invasion. But in this largest action of the war, our untrained troops were scattered. After the battle was lost, the same unit, made up of sharp shooting long rifle hunters, covered Washington’s famous retreat across the East River from Brooklyn Heights to Manhattan, where the war would continue. Well, actually the Pennsylvania frontiersmen came down to disembark too early that evening due to a staff officer’s mistake. Washington met Colonel Hand and his men at the ferry landing while his other troops were still getting onto small boats. The general was upset, to say the least, to encounter his covering force suddenly out of its protective position, and said in effect: “What are you, nuts? Who’s covering us now? Get back up on the line!” Luckily, the victorious British were not paying attention…

IN JULY OF 1976, another fleet of tall ships sailed directly into New York Harbor, their masts appearing on the horizon and then gliding past during Operation Sail, the main event with which New York City commemorated the Bicentennial of the United States of America. The US Coast Guard training ship Eagle led the way, followed by similar sailing ships still manned in this modern age by the navies of a number of countries around the world, from South America to Scandinavia. These stately beauties were followed by sleek gray modern US Navy vessels ranging from small destroyers up to a gigantic aircraft carrier. Many would dock and be open to the public on wharves all around the City that weekend. I watched from our brownstone rooftop in Cobble Hill with many friends. The Cobble Hill neighborhood had been named after Fort Cobble Hill, the main point of resistance in Washington’s line of fortification. It was manned and named by New England troops, and I note that there is also a Cobble Hill in Boston harbor, where the Revolution began, so I imagine that’s where the name originated. On that later July day, a radio broadcaster announced each ship and its home port, with stirring music, as it glided by past Governor’s Island (then a Coast Guard base), Liberty Island with its statue, and Ellis Island, former immigration station and today a museum itself. There were local events all over the City at that time, and Fleet Week became an annual event in NYC, still celebrated to this day by the arrival of modern American Navy and other ships which tie up all spruced up for the public to visit.

On that Bicentennial Day, we strolled along the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, eating ice cream and viewing those tall ships which were berthing locally at the Brooklyn docks. More blue and white uniformed sailors flocked around the streets than they had since the Second World War, speaking a dozen languages, and enjoying their own vacation day ashore. Each year following that one, there would be events and ships to see, and shore parties out enjoying their own liberty.

One year I went aboard a Russian ship which had beautiful features, and odd empty spaces with holes where former Soviet insignia had been recently removed after the dissolution of the USSR. History had caught up to their Revolution in a different way! Another year I visited a US Marine amphibious assault ship. This marvel of technology was a floating base from which land forces could be launched, protected by their own helicopters. As in the old British Navy during its heyday ruling the waves, ships like this one were on station all over the world, in place and ready in case of an emergency. During those days of peace, they were a reminder to us civilians that our armed forces were maintaining a global watch on troubled situations. It was 96 degrees and humid waiting out in the sun on a long line that day, and nearby soda trucks were doing a big business--but I was younger then, and stood it out to go aboard, and see my tax dollars at work.

On Atlantic Avenue, many nineteenth century buildings recall the old Age of Sail, one even still sporting huge old letters advertising ‘Sail Makers,’ although none have been operating for a long, long time. The old docks are now being made over into a park. But that week over thirty years ago, you could look down the avenue to its end and see sails against the sky, a majestic and magical pleasure evoking our eighteenth and nineteenth century naval history. The complex skills needed to sail the old ships are still evoked in naval training ships of today, which carry on the tradition, as their naval cadets swarm over the foretops. It is also reflected in the great pleasure private sailors get from the wondrous natural ability of the wind to power their own craft over the waves--with no noisy engine chugging away except under windless condition or emergencies.

Today, if you want to see old ships, you can walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to South Street Seaport in Manhattan. There windjammers (metal hulls with sails) from the nineteenth century and historical exhibits still show the nautical history of those bygone days when NYC was one of the greatest ports in the world. You can also go down to The Battery and enter the circular Castle Clinton fort, one of the old harbor defensive structures designed by a US Corps of Engineers officer, one Robert E. Lee. Nearby is Frauncis Tavern, where Washington said goodbye to his officers after his war, and The Seamen’s Church Institute, where merchant sailors could find a room and a library of books to take back aboard ship with them to read during long nights at sea. And returning to our side of the river, over in The Brooklyn Navy Yard, there had also been major nautical activity in the old times, including the construction of the U.S.S Monitor, our first ironclad, which dueled with the C.S.S. Virginia (formerly U.S.S. Merrimac) during the Civil War, making all the wooden ships obsolete. A memory of the times when it was a beehive of naval industry is recalled in the name of the surrounding housing projects, such as the Admiral Farragut Apartments. The yard is not open to the public, being used these days as both a NYC office storage area and a film studio! But if you watch the opening and closing scenes of the iconic New York City movie musical On The Town (Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, 1949) you can see post World War II era ‘sailors’ still disembarking and embarking to and from the Navy Yard docks on their much anticipated shore leave in the magical city where I live.
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kolakoski's Avatar

Current Seaport Sailing

Well met!

The Seaport has a sailing ship of its own, that you can sign on to, for a 2-month training cruise, after which you can be a member of the crew to carry tourists around or whatever. When I [retire][semi-retire], and can take 2 months for it, its on my short list of activities.
Posted May 16th, 2011 at 01:46 PM by kolakoski kolakoski is offline
Hi Chas - not really blog people, so this is probably in the wrong place, but wife and I recently acquired some (OK, loads and loads of) WW2 54mm, and we'd love to see your Recon and Rushes rules - we're guessing they' be good for 6-8 players with 50 or so figures each? We're always interested in new rules concepts. I've no idea how to send you an email directly but we're at ... thathistorybloke@btinternet.com
Posted December 1st, 2015 at 01:17 PM by uglyfatbloke uglyfatbloke is offline
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