Waterford, N.Y., Saturday, Sept. 6 – I had been stalking Bill Curry for two days.
Peter Kuebel put the bug in my ear during the tail-end of our Erie Canal tour. Capt. Dick Powell, our guide, engaged in a spontaneous toot-off with Curry as he steered the Richard William II back to port.
That guy’s a character, Kuebel said. Bring him a bottle of wine, and he’ll talk all night long. Here along the Waterford docks, Curry is something of a legend. He is captain of the 8th Sea, a onetime U.S. Army harbor tug. Now it is the epicenter of the party.
Curry is the only private owner the tug has had. He holds court on its modest rear deck, his coffee mug fortified with a dram of merlot.
Perhaps Waterford denizens don’t really lock their doors and hide their women and children when the 8th Sea motors into town,but they know where to find the party.
My problem was the party was nonstop, the joint too crowded for me to comfortably insinuate myself into. I finally cornered him on an old barge called the Pennsy 399, where the ownership collective was selling craft beer to defray the costs of renovation and operation.
One of the Pennsy owners poured me an IPA called Hurricane Kitty and told me how a guy named Steve Truman had rescued the barge from a watery grave. An inveterate tinkerer and preserver of historic boats, Truman found the Pennsy 399 beached near Kingston, N.Y. When the tide went out, he’d patch holes with metal plates and bail water. Eventually he raised it and bought it for a dollar. Then he ran into financial trouble, which is how the Pennsy Barge Collective came to buy it out of drydock at Erie Canal Lock No. 3 in Waterford.
“We’re just living the dream,” the bartender said. “LTD is what we call it.”
I turned around and saw Curry getting up to leave. It was now or never. I blocked his path and introduced myself. Curry has a well-earned reputation as a nice fellow. He invited me onto the 8th Sea, then worked assiduously to foist me off on a parade of others.
Talk to this guy, he said. Talk to that guy. Several times he offered to hook me up with John Callaghan, Deputy Director of New York State Canal Corporation.
Aboard the 8th Sea, I offered up a middling bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon as tribute. Curry accepted graciously, then held it against his cheek. Nope, he said, it needed chilling to reach the requisite serving temperature of 65-degrees Fahrenheit. He deposited into an industrial-sized cooler. I started to protest the oenological calamity of cold red wine, but thought better. I was a guest on his boat, after all.
It didn’t take long for Curry to find a suitable victim. At least this one, Tim Ivory, came with a remarkable symmetry. Ivory, a 48-year-old boat engineer, happens to be one of the Gang of 8 owners of Pennsy Barge 399. Built in 1942, the 399 is an 80-foot-long, steel-hulled mastodon which once hauled dry goods up and down the Hudson for the Pennsylvania Railroad.
For Ivory, it seemed that the dream had turned sour and become a floating albatross. It had become one of those frustrating, low-grade nightmares you just can’t seem to walk away from or lift yourself out of.
“It’s kind of running out of steam,” Ivory said with a sigh. “The organization itself is a little split between those that want to go nonprofit with it and those, like me, who want to keep it semi-commercial. One of the things that set us back is the cost of transportation. Anytime we have a gig for it, getting it there costs more money than the event earns.”
Getting it there requires a push, in this case from the Tug Cornell. Depending upon on the tide, the tug and ancillary factors, Ivory said towing the Pennsy 399 from Yonkers to Waterford takes about 14-18 hours and requires 35 to 75 gallons of fuel each hour. And then they have to pay the tugboat fee.
Ivory looks to be the elder statesman of the barge collective. Strong of build and sturdy of mind, you can tell right off he’s done his share of manual work. He grew up in Ridgewood, N.J., where his father, Cornelius Ivory, was a doctor. He’s one of eight kids, and most of his siblings work professional, white-collar type jobs.
He was different. He started turning a wrench at age 9, and showed an early proclivity for mechanical wizardry. He is intimately connected to the resurrection of Pennsy 399. Years ago he moved to Kingston to help Truman restore PT boats, and he was intimately affected by Truman’s fiscal collapse.
“He kind of ran out of money and tried to shut down operations owing me a chunk of money, so I decided I’d just hang out in Kingston and squat on his property,” Ivory said. “So it’s a love-hate relationship, but it’s going well for me.”
If the one-step-forward, two-steps-back saga of the 399 has left him disillusioned, Ivory can’t quite let go of the dream and the potential she possesses.
“It has mystique,” Ivory said. “It’s a great space. Essentially what I’d like to do is put in a kitchen, some bathrooms and showers and stuff and make a road-trip barge out of it. That’s where my head is at. It’s got a nice character to it. It’s a great space for music. It’s a great space for parties. It’s waiting for something interesting to happen.”
She is is the last of her kind afloat. At one time, the Hudson was jammed with railroad barges strung bow to stern, moved by the power of a single tugboat. They’d haul sacks of coffee and cocoa and crates of produce to ports without viable railroad connections.
“The wood aspect of it is what gives the barge character,” he said. “The fact that it’s metal pretty much makes the barge indestructible.”
I asked how he got into the boating scene. When a guy engaged him to do engine work on an old farm tractor, Ivory became intrigued by a boat loitering in the yard. Eventually he bartered the tractor job for the boat, a 1930 Chris Craft runabout.
He hasn’t been quite the same since.
“It was like coming home with magic beans,” he said. “Suddenly I’m on the river fixing everybody else’s boat.”
There’s something enchanting, he said, even liberating, about owning your own boat.
“Having a boat is like having your own private island,” he said. “You get to be the guy in charge. You get to decide who gets to stay and who gets to go. You can venture off and essentially go in any direction at whatever speed you’re capable of going. If you’re on a boat and you want to go in circles at 100 miles per hour, go ahead. The only thing they ask you to do is not kill somebody.”
I suggested his problem was the Pennsy 399 had turned into something like Gilligan’s Island.
He managed a laugh, but I think he had wearied of the conversation. I think it was bringing him down.
He drained his beer, stood up, excused himself and walked off down the dock.
Once again I turned toward Curry. Our conversation was at least a partial disaster, but I don’t blame him at all. I recorded a bit of it, but had real trouble deciphering any of it. Wind gusts buffeted the 8th Sea. A big, baritone voice wandered in from another onboard conversation. Live music wafted down from the Tugboat Festival stage upon the MV Grand Erie.
He did share an anecdote about a boatload of watermelons bobbing in Chesapeake Bay. All I remember is a sudden gust came up and whacked the ship hard across the bow, “knocking her flatter than piss on a platter.”
That’s what he said. That’s why they say Curry is a good guy to talk with. He seem like good-time Bill, but he’s a serious fellow. A mechanical engineer by trade, he went to work for Remington after getting out of the Navy. Now 72, he’s living the good life which he worked to secure, and enjoying it to the hilt. He spends six months a year in the Grand Cayman, and six months in Waterford.
He said the boating life got into his blood early, when he sailed on an oyster dredge as a kid.
“I worked on them old skipjacks,” he said. “My old man had a friend on Sherwin Island who had a buy-boat; a buy-boat is a power boat, about 75-feet long. You’d go out and buy oysters from the ship deck, because in Maryland you could only dredge oysters under sail. He had two skipjacks, and he’d get his own and everybody else’s oysters. We’d sail until the dredge was full, and then we’d cull oysters. So as a little kid I got to cull oysters.”
He might have gone down into a watery grave with the Chesapeake Bay oyster industry, but his parents had other ideas.
“If my parents hadn’t told me I better do something and get out of town, I’d probably be a dumbass waterman on the Eastern Shore,” he said. “That’s what I wanted to do.”
Curry shifted anxiously and looked around for someone else I might bother. He found his man in Russ VanDervoort, canal historian and caretaker of the endangered waterfront character.