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Manhattan at work

It takes time to accrue the secrets of a seasoned boater.

Hidden inlets, prime fishing grounds and the best dockside spots to grab a burger are shared with few. Aboard a ferry for one of Manhattan’s Sunset Hidden Harbor Tours, discovering secrets is precisely the point.

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Each year in May, on Working Harbor Day and on selected dates throughout the summer, the Working Harbor Committee offers a 2-1/2-hour look into this world, normally hidden from the average boater.

Departing from Pier 16 at the South Street Seaport in New York City, the narrated tour of Manhattan’s hidden waterfront takes passengers from the Brooklyn Piers to the Erie Basin, through Kill Van Kull and on to Newark Bay. Narrators vary, but the guide is always well-acquainted with the harbor — a tugboat captain or maritime historian.

On this day the guide is Capt. John Doswell, the Working Harbor committee chair. He offers a historical perspective, as well as a more up-to-date view, as with his talk on containerization, which is the system of transporting cargo in enclosed receptacles (previously, each article on a ship had to be loaded separately.)

The post-World War II system cut costs and labor considerably by simplifying the loading and unloading process on large container ships, according to the Working Harbor Committee. It also helps cut down on pollution and even theft.

Many of Manhattan’s busiest working yards are on view during this tour — a mix of graving docks, tug yards, container ports and barge facilities. New York Harbor employs more than 35,000 people, but this behind-the-scenes footage is largely inaccessible to the general public.

Not only is the world of the working harbor fascinating, it’s vitally important to the area economy, say organizers of the tour.

“This [tour] exposes people to the larger industry,” says Working Harbor Committee member Richard Taylor.

“It’s a working harbor,” says Doswell. “It’s diverse. It’s busy. These are things most people don’t usually see.”

Longtime boater George McDonnell worked in lower Manhattan for years. McDonnell, joined on the tour by visiting friends, logged considerable hours aboard a variety of vessels since the age of 14: a 36-foot all mahogany Chris-Craft, a 17-foot Thistle (McDonnell was a two-time national champion), and a 51-foot CSY — on which he spent 11 years chartering through the Caribbean and along the South American coast.

But no coastal cruise brings views like this.

On this day the tour passes by several large container ports, among them the Global Terminal and the Port Elizabeth container terminal, which boasts several sizeable cranes for filling the containers.

The waterways of New York are indeed heavily traveled by tugs and barges, containerships and New York water taxis.

The waterfront view on this tour comes coupled with a wealth of information on New York City’s working waters. “They’re seeing the economic engine of the city,” says former merchant marine Jonathan Atkin, another passenger. “It’s an intricate, organic phenomenon; complex, brilliant and changing — with the water, the light. It’s constantly moving with tides, winds, weather.”

The Sunset Hidden Harbor Tour series offers another view of the bustling metropolis: a bevy of activity and motion that doesn’t end on the island.

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See related articles:

- New York's seldom-told stories

- Act II for steamship Lilac

- A steamship's history

- New York Harbor Voices

This article originally appeared in the Connecticut & New York Home Waters Section of the January 2010 issue.