Fred A. Bernstein

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A Harbor Cruise, Under a Rainbow

Aboard the fireboat John J. Harvey

Published in The New York Times, July 26, 2002

The John J. Harvey, a 130-foot fireboat sold by New York City at auction in 1999 and now on the National Register of Historic Places, is moving slowly up the Hudson River. An announcement booms over the public address system: ''Alice, you have 30 seconds to move anything you don't want to get wet.''

Alice Hepburn, a 10-year-old in a one-piece bathing suit and thongs, begins cramming CD's into a plastic case. Suddenly, eight giant brass cannons (officially known as deck pipes) begin shooting water in 200-foot arcs, in a display so grand it practically demands Manhattan as a backdrop. The cannons blast water out of the river at the rate of 18,000 gallons, or two large swimming pools, a minute.

''Any excuse to spout, and we'll spout,'' said David Beatty, a 37-year-old entrepreneur, who owns the Harvey with 13 partners, mostly Manhattanites who take turns polishing its brass fittings and giving tours of the boat, which is fire-engine red.

Mr. Beatty's T-shirt says ''Crew (really)'' to distinguish it from the souvenir T-shirts, which say simply ''Crew'' and are sold to keep the boat financially afloat.

''Without the water displays,'' he said, ''we're just another tugboat.''

Not quite. For 80 hours beginning last Sept. 11, the Harvey, built by the city in 1931 and decomissioned 63 years later, pumped millions of gallons of water to the World Trade Center site. Hydrants west of ground zero were dry, but the Harvey drew directly from the Hudson River.

In the months that followed, the boat was present at ceremonies honoring lost firefighters. ''We made the decision that anything the Fire Department asked us to do, we would do regardless of the expense,'' said Huntley Gill, one of the owners.

In May the Harvey led a flotilla of hundreds of vessels supporting public access to Governors Island, a pet cause of several of the Harvey's owners. Most days the Harvey rests at its berth at Pier 63, just north of Chelsea Piers. The owners show up when they can to paint, polish and schmooze. And at least twice a week, weather permitting, they pilot the Harvey into the harbor. Passing the Statue of Liberty, they play ''God Bless America'' (Kate Smith, not Celine Dion) on the public address system, while everyone gets wet and wide-eyed. When the sun is out, the Harvey makes its own rainbows.

The public is invited to join in. ''This is one of the most fun things you can do in New York; it's free and no one knows about it,'' marveled Stuart Sealfon, a professor at Mount Sinai Medical School who was on the boat recently with his son, Adam, 11. Both were dripping wet.

Last summer the boat made a four-day trip to Albany and back. About 30 passengers, including several toddlers and Mr. Beatty's parents, who came from Ireland for the occasion, were on board. As the Harvey wasn't designed to leave New York Harbor, it has no staterooms. So some passengers slept on hammocks on deck, and others slept in motels or in friends' vacation homes along the Hudson. Meals were cooked on board.

Because the Harvey had never been north of the Bronx, its owners say, that was the first time it had pumped fresh water. ''This'll really give its pipes a cleaning,'' exulted Bob Lenney, who was at the Harvey's helm for 16 years as a pilot in the Fire Department's Marine Division and now returns on weekends as a volunteer.

This year the boat will make a second trip up the Hudson, leaving on Aug. 6. The goal, Mr. Gill said, is to reach Albany in time for the opening of the Hudson River Way, a long-awaited pedestrian bridge from downtown Albany to the river, on Aug. 10. Passengers will be asked to split expenses, about $50 a day per person for food and fuel.

Along the way the boat will dock in places like Newburgh and Poughkeepsie, although Mr. Gill said: ''You'd be amazed by how few towns have docks. These towns that owe their very existence to the Hudson and there's no place for a boat.'' He is hoping that some of those towns, seeing the Harvey pass, will be inspired to build public moorings.

The Harvey, built for $600,000, was the most powerful fireboat of its day and the first with internal combustion engines; previous boats had been steam-powered. Named for the pilot of an earlier fireboat who died in the line of duty in 1930, it fought fires not only on vessels but also on New York's bustling piers. It was a familiar presence at Fourth of July celebrations and other harbor festivities.

Taken out of service in 1994, the Harvey languished at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for four years before its current owners discovered it and bought it for $28,000. They include Mr. Beatty; Mr. Gill, an Upper West Side real estate consultant; and Florent Morellet, owner of the restaurant in the meatpacking district that bears his given name. The owners towed the boat to the Cadell Drydock and Repair Company on Staten Island for $75,000 worth of urgently needed repairs.

Since then expenses of about $40,000 a year have been defrayed by T-shirt sales and donations. (A nonprofit corporation called Save Our Ships funnels tax-deductible contributions to the Harvey and other historic vessels.)

Luckily for the Harvey's owners, the men who ran the fireboat as city employees like nothing better than returning to the vessel on weekends. Mr. Lenney, 66, a Carroll O'Connor look-alike who was the boat's longtime pilot (don't call him captain, which is a rank in the Fire Department), is often at the wheel. A painting of Mr. Lenney, with Jesus guiding him through a storm, hangs in the wheelhouse.

''The city tried to kill the boat, but they couldn't,'' Mr. Lenney said just before the water started flowing and Kate Smith began to sing.