Sailing: Lower Manhattan's Best-Kept Secret

By Abigail Martinez

Tom Berton, manager of Shearwater Sailing. Photo by Kevin Wong.

When someone says Manhattan, the first thoughts for most people are sky-high buildings, congested traffic and buzzing crowds. Almost everyone forgets that this thriving metropolitan area is in fact an island bordered by a beautiful waterfront.

This is what Tom Berton tries to remind his customers every day. Berton is the manager of Shearwater Sailing (www.shearwatersailing.com), a company that offers harbor tours of the Hudson River to the general public.

"It's so amazing to be out on the water, it's such a soothing escape," he says. "But most people don't know they can come out here."

Shearwater does up to five sails a day out of North Cove Marina between the months of April and October. Highlights of the tour include a stunning view of the Manhattan skyline, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, and a chance to learn interesting facts about the city's history from the boat's crew.

The boat itself also has a rich history. The Shearwater is a classic 82-foot luxury schooner named after a sea-going bird. It was built in 1929 and can carry up to 48 passengers. During World War Two, she was requisitioned by the War Shipping Administration and became a member of the U.S. Coast Guard's Coastal Picket Patrol. She has also been used as a research laboratory by the University of Pennsylvania for studies on physiological responses to the stresses of living underwater.

But today the Shearwater is a recreational vessel, introducing her passengers to some of Manhattan's best-kept secrets.

Berton, 38, started his Downtown company, Shearwater Sailing, in the spring of 2001. Prior to that he worked in import and export retail, and sailed only during his spare time.

Berton volunteered for a boat called the Petrel, which also did harbor tours, and had been doing so for over 12 years. This was the main way he learned how to sail - by volunteering his services to the Petrel and other boats in exchange for a few sailing lessons. From the first time Berton stepped on a boat, he fell in love with the water immediately.

"I grew up in New York City but never had a sense of it as a harbor until I started sailing," he says. "I love the feel of the water - it lets you leave the artificial pace of the world behind."

Shearwater also runs its own volunteer program. Members of the public from all walks of life who wish to learn how to sail are invited to volunteer as crew members.

"No experience is necessary, so long as they're responsible," says Berton.

When the Petrel's owner decided to stop doing tours in 2000, Berton and other members of the crew had to find another way to foster their passion for sailing. So he and two other colleagues pooled their resources together and bought Shearwater.

"We loved to sail and we loved old, classic boats," he says. "We had a really good start and did quite well during that first year."

But soon after, Berton and the others were faced with a tremendous challenge - the destruction of 9/11.

Docked in North Cove, Shearwater was in the heart of the disaster that resulted after the twin towers collapsed. It was damaged by falling debris and the jostling of rescue boats which shared her dock.

For nearly a year after those events, Berton and his crew were unable to carry through with their plans for Shearwater Sails.

"9/11 brought everything to a halt," he says. "The harbor didn't really re-open until 2002 and no one knew they could come down here."

Today, Berton is the sole owner of the boat and business is slowly starting to get back on its feet. Although profit levels have not reached those prior to 9/11, Berton remains optimistic.

Shearwater had previously catered to numerous corporate clients in the downtown area, and Berton is aiming to get those clients back. Other customers cover an eclectic range, from curious locals who just happen to be passing by, to tourists coming in from out of state.

In the past, Shearwater has been host to numerous private parties, family reunions, marriage proposals, as well as wedding and ash scattering ceremonies. Fine dining and buffet style lunches have also been provided.

L-R: first mate Kirsten Hill, captain Matt Beck and manager Tom Berton have dedicated countless hours of time and effort to maintaining Shearwater. Photo by Kevin Wong.

Berton is trying to expand their customer base further by getting the word out that sailing is a viable and fun activity to do in Manhattan, since most people aren't aware that this is available to them.

"We're offering ourselves as another option for things to do around New York," he says.

While the craft looks fine to the layman's eye, there are still cosmetic repairs to be done before Berton will be satisfied that she is returned to her historic state.

Berton describes Shearwater as "a labor of love." He says her dedicated crew rises at dawn nearly every morning and works until the late hours of the night, maintaining and repairing the boat. "It's not something you do unless you really love it."

Once the sailing season is over, Shearwater will be spending the winter in the Caribbean, offering week-long charters in the U.S. Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands.

Shearwater sets sail from North Cove Marina daily at 10 a.m., 12 p.m., 2:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Schedule is subject to change depending on the weather. Reservations and online ticketing are available through Smarttix (212) 868-4444. For charters or the Shearwater business office, call 1-800-544-1224. For more information, visit www.shearwatersailing.com.



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