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At Sea in the City: New York from the Water's Edge [Deckle Edge] [Hardcover]

William Kornblum , Pete Hamill
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The glorious anachronisms of sailing stand out in high relief against the backdrop of New York City in these vignettes of sailing around Manhattan. Kornblum's Tradition is a 24-foot-long shallow-draft workboat based on an American catboat design, which he found and adapted from a classified ad. But Kornblum, a professor at the City University of New York, minimizes the nostalgic restoration story and takes readers right on board for refreshing views of an island city that was built on the economic foundations of great natural harbors and fertile inland waterways. Kornblum knows the remaining "urban archipelago" and cruises Jamaica Bay, the tidal Hudson, the Rockaways and the inshore Atlantic coast. He sails under the city's modern bridges, through disused canals, into still wild wetlands, and pauses for nautical history lessons at sites like the wreck of the General Slocum in 1904, a catastrophe in the narrows of Hell Gate. The eight essays glide along nicely, even as Kornblum approaches the unromantic waters around the East Coast's largest airport and the churning oil-sheen tides of the Arthur Kills. Kornblum and his wife, Susan, are wonderful guides to the city, with its often uninviting waterline. Illus. and charts.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Kornblum (sociology, CUNY), a native New Yorker, has spent much of his life touring New York's waters. Part urban sociology, part erudite Circle Line tour, Kornblum's charming book recounts the history of New York's waterfront and maritime culture even as he sails along beside it in his old sailboat, Tradition. Kornblum sees the city as an urban archipelago with only one-eighth lying on the mainland; the rest is comprised of larger and smaller islands, many virtually unknown to most New Yorkers. Kornblum hopes that more people will take to the waters of the city to see it from sea level, where it remains a place within nature's domain. Although forever changed by September 11, 2001, for Kornblum the city's waters still exert a magical pull; and for much of the rest of the world, he believes New York remains a place of infinite human possibility. With a fine introduction by onetime waterfront reporter Pete Hamill, this appealing work is suitable for New York City collections. Harry Frumerman, formerly with Hunter Coll., New York
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


" . . . should become an enduring part of the literature of New York and of all cities on the sea." -- Derek Lundy, author of Godforsaken Sea

" . . . the author finds a way of grappling afresh with the history and complexity of the metropolis." -- Phillip Lopate, author of Portrait of My Body

About the Author

William Kornblum is a professor of sociology at the City University of New York. He is a graduate of Cornell University and the University of Chicago and was among the nation's first Peace Corps volunteers. He is the author of numerous scholarly books and articles on the people of New York. A native New Yorker, he's been sailing around the city his whole life.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

The vessel we sailed on our New York voyages was named Tradition. This was the name she was given in 1910, when she was launched at the Crosby boatyards in Osterville on Cape Cod. She was a worn-out twenty-four-foot New England catboat, built by the most famous maker of these boats at a time when they were the most common all-purpose work and pleasure craft along the shallow barrier island bays and inlets of our northern coasts and estuaries.

Tradition carried a single huge mainsail on her wooden spars. The sail was rigged with wooden hoops to her stout, ancient mast, dark with the stains of time and the sea, and laced to a boom that extended aft some twenty-five feet from the mast near the bow, beyond the sturdy wheel and beyond the boat's transom. The sail was hauled aloft by a wooden gaff to which was connected an efficient system of halyards and blocks. A throat halyard pulled up the gaff by its throat, while the two jaws moved up along the mast, and there was a peak halyard that lifted the aft portions of the sail. A third halyard, the topping lift, raised the boom, in part so this formidable club could swing safely over the heads of crew and passengers when the boat was tacking through the wind. All the halyards ran from the mast to the boat's ample cockpit, and the sail could be raised or lowered by a single sailor without having to run forward to manage the sails, as is the case with most modern sailing rigs.

Catboats passed out of favor among yachting people in the early decades of the twentieth century. They were replaced by the graceful sloops whose shortened mainsails and higher-reaching Marconi (triangular peaked) sails and forward jibs could add speed in lighter breezes, and whose heeling in the wind gives a greater impression of speed than the more upright and beamy cat.

The working catboats of Cape Cod, Great South Bay and Barnegat Bay were good all-purpose boats for tending fishing nets and for use as charter fishing boats on the weekends. A classic Currier and Ives print from the turn of the nineteenth century shows a catboat and its captain carrying intent young men and laughing women trolling for bluefish in a choppy ocean inlet. Generations of fishermen and local boatbuilders refined the catboat for heavy work along the coasts. But as the fishermen discovered motors that could carry them out of calms or squalls, the slower-sailing cats held less appeal for men whose livelihoods depended on getting the catch to market as fast as possible, and who would also prefer to get to the dinner table sooner and with more certainty. Many old fishing catboats lost their masts and sails and puttered along for years as motorized fishing boats.

But catboats are well evolved for sailing over our particular shoals, and they turn out to be extraordinarily adaptable to contemporary life on the waters of the East Coast cities. Like a whale's body, the shape of a boat's hull and the arrangement of its rigging are evolutionary solutions to complex problems of life in particular marine surroundings. "The one essential factor in the design of boats proven by history," wrote maritime historian Howard Chappel, "is that they must fit the conditions where they are used and for what they are used. . . . No one sits down and tries to figure out how to build a boat that is all round 'better.' He tries to figure out, instead, how to fit an existing boat so that she will do better the work for which she is required. This was certainly the case with the commercial catboat."

It may no longer be well adapted for sport or commercial fishing, but the catboat was still ideal for family voyages. Tradition was small enough for one sailor to handle and relatively easy on a strained household budget. Her four-cylinder gas engine burned about fifty dollars worth of gasoline a season, from April to late October or November. Her eleven-foot width sat flat on the water; her great beam made her extremely accommodating. You couldn't stand in the cabin below, and every boating season began with at least one sharp knock on the head, but there was plenty of room below for a huge double berth, a small galley, a portable marine head, a long bookshelf, and assorted storage nooks. On deck there was room for ten people to go on a day's outing without feeling crowded. When they were young, our children slept under the stars on Tradition's broad deckhouse.

Susan and I began sailing small boats together in 1963 when we were Peace Corps volunteers on the west coast of Africa, on the Ivory Coast. I lived in a tribal fishing village on the outskirts of the capital, Abidjan, where I taught physics and chemistry at the LycTe Classique d'Abidjan. Susan lived an hour outside the city in a small college town, where she taught math.

Wandering along the beach outside the city one day, I spotted the rotting hulk of an open-decked sloop, draped it over the back of a rented truck, and hauled it back to a local lagoon. A village carpenter made the major repairs. I finished the boat and rigged it for sailing. On its maiden voyage, two African friends from my village took the chance of being the first to go out with me. A crowd of curious villagers lined the beach. (Their preferred watercraft was a sleek dugout canoe with a good fifteen-horse Johnson outboard.) We sailed off smartly, and I took a few tacks through the wind. Heading back to shore to pick up Susan for her turn, I forgot to raise the dagger board. The boat hit the bottom and rolled all three of us into about three feet of lagoon water. The entire village erupted in howls. Susan was in stitches. She hardly understood how little about sailing I actually knew. But always game, she came out with me and we sailed through some splendid tidal estuaries in the Ebrie Lagoon, behind the great ocean beaches. Seventeen years later, when we were settled in Long Beach on another estuary, I managed to get us out on the water again.

Before I bought Tradition, Susan teased me by saying, "If you've got to buy another boat, just make sure it doesn't end up in the backyard like the last one." The last one, a battered rowing skiff, had rotted in our yard, proof I was probably not suited to taking proper care of a boat. Still I pored over boat ads in the penny-savers. I had sailed a strong open-decked catboat as a boy on family vacations in Maine with two old salts who gave me lessons. Now and then one of the modern fiberglass catboats would appear in the used boat ads, but they were always far too expensive for us.

Tradition was lying in pieces in the back of her seller's cottage when we first set eyes on her. My son, Noah, and I had driven at the crack of dawn to Southold, on the north fork of Long Island, the day after we spotted the ad for her: "1910 Crosby Catboat, hull fiberglassed, engine, $2,500." The owner had assured me over the phone that the boat had been restored and that she was well worth taking a look at. It was 1979, and my father lay dying in Mt. Sinai hospital in Manhattan. I needed a lift. But as Noah and I surveyed Tradition's forlorn condition, settled into the lawn of a Southold backyard, under a ragged canvas cover, it was hard to know what to think. Her lines, her sturdiness, her ample deck and cockpit space, her wooden spars, and all the rest were evident. She was traditional, all right, but modified over the years and now facing an uncertain future, perhaps only as another backyard compost pile.

My heart was beating wildly with the sudden panic of a man about to act like a boy by making an impulse purchase. I could hear all the voices of experience and reason telling me to get another opinion, shop around, try for a better price. Noah and I took a walk down Southold's Main Street and thought it over. Tradition's owner guaranteed that the engine had worked the last time the boat was in the water but did not say when that actually was. The prop turned easily, suggesting that the engine was not beyond hope, but the wiring looked abysmal. The modern Dacron sail was in good shape, however, and with its great size, that was important; a new one would cost almost the price of the boat itself. I could feel myself letting go. The beauty of the lines, the sheer breadth of her, the turn of her bilge, and the overhung transom had me. We took deep breaths. I paid the $2,500 asking price minus a token $100, to prove back home that we drove a hard bargain, and then made arrangements to have Tradition shipped to a working boatyard near our home on Reynolds Channel.

When he saw our purchase, Howard Sacken, who in those days ran Sacken's Boatyard with his son Mark, was not pleased. He was downright grumpy.

"This is a piece of shit," he muttered. "Look at that paint flaking off the hull, and those barnacles. You're going to have to take all that down bare before you can even begin to think about trying to fix the place on the keel around the prop where the fiberglass has failed."

We would be lucky, Howard scoffed, if the scow ever made it into the water. Once we got the pieces together and the sweaty scraping done on the hull, etc., he'd have to see what could be done with the engine, which itself was an obsolete affair with a prewar Wisconsin cylinder block and many parts by makers no longer in business. Rewiring was the least of it; first we would have to find out if it would work at all. With my father's life quickly ebbing away, racing cancer cells wilting his body before our eyes, my mother distraught with fear and grief, and the pressures of teaching, research, and writing deadlines gnawing at me, it seemed I had only added another burden to a long list.

But Noah and I were determined: nothing would prevent us from getting Tradition in shape and sailing again. The work cleared the mind and reminded me that I was privileged not to have such work as a daily obligation. I stole hours in the early mornings and evenings during the week and put in some full days on the weekends. We sanded and scraped until we thought our arms would fall off. We showed Howard Sacken and the other salts that we were game. We pestered to have the wiring and other mechanical work done. We read and reread the advic...

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