To those of us in the maritime transportation industry, tugs, pilot boats, barges, container vessels, cranes and dredgers are familiar sites. But to the consumer who's buying the apparel, coffee, car or TV you import or transport, they may be revelations. The Working Harbor Committee (WHC), a notfor- profit organization headquartered in NYC, has the goal to teach the public how the port works and why it is important to the regional and national economy.
Founded by Peter Stanford, first President of the South Street Seaport Museum, WHC's first event was in 2002 as a celebration of National Maritime Day. Volunteers gave narrated tours aboard ferry service provided by NY Waterways. It was a slow start. Only about a dozen people showed up, according to Captain John Doswell, Executive Director of WHC. But it didn't deter the committee, who felt the best way to educate people about the working waterfront was to take them to see it by tour boat. Today, they offer well-attended two-hour long "Hidden Harbor Tours" twice a month during the summer on Circle Line vessels, as well as excursions on or around National Maritime Day (this year on May 22).
"We focus on the working harbor," says Doswell. That means the sights include Elizabeth-Port Authority Marine Terminal and Port Newark, the Erie Basin and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, all highlighted with expert narration on how the harbor works and its history. They explain how cargo is handled and discharged from container ships. They discuss the roles of the terminals, barges, rail lines and truckers, tying them all together. Like a visit to the best kind of museum, it's educational yet effortless, interesting, fun and, being on the water, a chance to get a tan.
Who takes the tours? Mostly it's people curious about the port. They want to see ships up close, especially tugboats, says Doswell.
"It's amazing how interested people are," says Lucy Ambrosino, Manager of Outreach for the Port Commerce Department at The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. She and other Port Commerce staff have been speakers on the tours, along with other industry representatives. "I don't think most people understand how the goods they buy get to the stores," she said, "nor how many different transportation sectors are involved in the logistics chain. The tours provide this information in a relaxed, informal setting. It provides a venue to talk about the number of jobs created by the port industry, and how much revenue it brings to the regional economy."
Yet these activities are only part of the committee's mandate. Their other major effort involves working with city schools to show students that they can have well-paying careers in the maritime industry. "Most of the students have no knowledge about what goes on in the harbor, and we open their eyes to an employment path they haven't thought about," says Doswell. "It's a good match. The industry likes us for doing it."
Meg Black, who oversees the program targeting schools in low-income areas of New York and New Jersey, brings in speakers to show the impact of the port on students' lives and to discuss the kinds of jobs available and education needed. Much like the presentations given to adults on the Hidden Harbor Tours, the students are given lessons on how merchandise gets to the stores and how international trade affects their everyday lives. One way to grab students' interest is to ask them to look at the "made in" labels on their clothing, book bags, sneakers, or iPods. "The students get very excited at the countries they identify," noted Ambrosino.
Black works both with traditional and alternative high schools. After the success of two student trips hosted by McAllister Towing, she realized how eye-opening the excursion was for the students. "I talk to them about logistics, and the impact of trade. The kids are very engaged," said Black. "They ask a lot of questions. Our strongest message is the need to stay in school and get the education they need to succeed in the industry," she added. Black puts a lot of energy into raising funds for harbor tours dedicated to education so that she will be able to continue the program. Many of the financial supporters are companies involved in the maritime trade, but she works with other organizations as well.
The WHC also offers specialized tours. One route covers New Town Creek. Another, with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, explores East River bridges. "We may do a separate one on light houses of the East River," says Doswell. "We're talking a lot about a circumnavigation of Staten Island."
For more information about the Working Harbor Committee and its activities, visit: www.workingharbor.com.