Friday, 09 October 2009 00:00
One afternoon 50 years ago, give or take a few weeks, a group of managers and workers from Jakobson Shipyard sailed four brand new tugboats to Manhattan. The tugs were state of the art for their day, boasting among other features a new diesel-electric hybrid power system developed by General Motors. As the tugs bobbed proudly in front of the New York skyline, a GM photographer snapped their picture for posterity.
A GM publicity executive dubbed the tugboat foursome, rather grandly, The Four Aces, and sent the photo out to newspapers, magazines and other media outlets around the world. The tugs were custom-built for Lehigh Valley Railroad, and four Lehigh execs took ownership of the new vessels that day - then ordered two more tugs from delighted Jakobson officials.
The Jakobson-GM tugs had a competitive advantage, floating j-u-u-u-s-t beneath the Harlem River bridges ahead of their rivals, thanks to a design improvement. Those few inches beneath the current let the tugs move unimpeded down the river while the other tugs had to wait for operators to mechanically raise the bridges to accomodate them.
As part of the Oyster Festival’s Tall Ships exhibition, a survivor of that maritime fleet - the Cornell - returns to the waterfront where she was built half a century ago - the first Jakobson vessel to show among the Tall Ships in the festival’s 26-year history.
“We are delighted to have the Cornell join the Tall Ships this year, on her 50th birthday,” said Paul Rosen, chairman of the Oyster Festival. “This is a remarkable anniversary for the Cornell and we are delighted to be part of the festivities.”
“This is a really special occasion,” said Cindy Smith, president of ImageQuest Communications and the festival’s promotional director. A member of the festival committee that selected the vessel, Ms. Smith said, “We have brought dozens of wonderful boats to the waterfront, and viewing the Tall Ships is now an important part of the festival. It’s high time that a boat built at Jakobson right here on the waterfront returns to Oyster Bay where it all began.”
At the festival in two weeks, guests will be able to help celebrate the anniversary by boarding the Cornell and meeting her new owner, 28 year-old Matt Perricone. The young maritime engineer, an enthusiast of historic vessels, purchased the tugboat from its previous owner last year and brought her from the Chespeake Bay to Greenport for restoration.
Like hundreds of tugboats plying the nation’s riverfronts, changing economics and gas prices made the Cornell expendable by the 1960s.
“The Cornell was going to be sold for scrap, and when I heard about it I had to do something,” said Mr. Perricone. That “something” turned out to be purchasing and restoring the vessel, a makeover that includes being repainted in the original Lehigh red-and-white color scheme. Today, the Cornell again takes on occasional commercial maritime assignments, although most of the demand, he conceded, comes from event organizers and maritime buffs.
Despite half a century of use, he said, the Cornell has held up remarkably well.
“The thing with Jakobson’s tugs was that they were overbuilt,” said Mr. Perricone. “By that I mean they are much stronger and more durable than customers required them to be. The reason they were phased out decades ago had everything to do with economics and nothing to do with seaworthiness. The Cornell can do the same work today she did the day she was built.”
Mr. Perricone plans to sail the Cornell down from upstate Kingston Thursday, Oct. 15 and participate in opening festivities the next day. Sometime during the weekend, he will undoubtedly drop by the outdoor mural painting being created by The Teaching Studio of Art going by the gazebo Audrey Avenue, where guests are invited to take chalk and help create a 12-16-foot outdoor community portrait of the historic tug.
“It’s wonderful to hear about all this enthusiasm for the Cornell.” Mr. Perricone said. “She’s really a marvelous tug and I’ve enjoyed bringing her back to people who appreciate her.”