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City Kid-Captain

Our Town downtown

June 25, 2007

Pioneer is an urban ship, and that’s no oxymoron

“If we could just muster amidships,” says Captain Aaron Singh. Although his voice is not much louder than conversational, the handful of volunteers and two paid crew scattered around the deck gather around. The command is routine, but the news is dire: an engine check had revealed that salt water had seeped into the engine, which might damage the transmission. “Which would be… bad,” says Singh, 29, who has a knack for keeping things simple.
The crew droops. A class of sixth graders had taken the subway all the way from the Bronx expecting to be taken on a three-hour trawling sail. Volunteer crew had trekked in from outer boroughs for what is, for many, an addictive escape from the city routine. The ship’s educator, who arrives a minute later, introduces herself: “Hi. I’m disappointed.”
Pioneer, the Seaport Museum’s 102-foot schooner, may be the busiest ship at the seaport. She sails every day, sometimes coming in and out of port from nine in the morning until midnight. Each weekday, Pioneer takes school kids on educational sails. To subsidize the school trips, the ship becomes a charter boat in the evenings, and also takes tourists out – the crew even dresses up in pirate costumes on occasion.
So the fact that a replacement part for the ship’s English-made engine could take three to five weeks to arrive is a big deal.
But Singh’s body language is as casual as his shorts and sandals. His speech is unhurried as he lays out the immediate possibilities: either the crew will do the educational workshops with the school kids on land, or they’ll use the wet lab aboard another ship, or the class will reschedule. The class ends up rescheduling, and Singh disappears.
Within minutes, the leak has been identified, the affected part removed, the engine supplier notified. By that afternoon, the part is in the mail. “This company I found in Seattle has the engine, so they took it off one of their engines to send to us because they want to see us operate, so we’ll get it tomorrow morning and put it in,” Singh tells me later on the phone.
Disaster averted.
Singh, 29, is a city boy. He grew up in Manhattan and started sailing through the Sea Scout program out of City Island when he was 12.
One of the requirements of the Sea Scout program was that students gain experience on a larger ship than the program’s 34-foot sloop. So in 1994, Singh and his friend Jonathan Kabak, now captain of the Seaport Museum’s other historic schooner, the Lettie G. Howard, started volunteering at the seaport, collecting hours on the water, and moving up in the ranks. No social networking necessary. Once you have 360 days of time on a vessel, anyone can sit for a captain’s license with the coast guard.
Although she was built in Pennsylvania in 1885, Pioneer has been operating out of the seaport since the Seaport Museum opened up in 1967, and by now is as much a local as her captain. “It’s a city boat,” says Singh. “The boat’s operating out of New York. We are an urban boat. Our crews are from New York City. This is who needs to be crewing on it. This is the audience we need to be taking out,” says Singh.
“I always say that people don’t really know that Manhattan is an island. By sailing, we’re actually teaching by example. So a lot of the students we’re taking out, they can do the same thing. They can be a captain eventually. They can learn how to operate the boat, and do everything that we’re doing.”
The message seems to be getting through. Of the army of volunteers who help out on the boat and the slew of students who come aboard, more than 100 have gone on to make a career of sailing, says Singh. Singh calls the volunteer route “New York’s community sailing program.”
“Our biggest thing is getting people to know that we’re here. You can have a job from 9 to 5, you can have been to work and sail on a six o’clock sail or on the weekends, and not go to Long Island.”
Last year, six crew members decided to quit their day jobs and go off and sail on traditional tall ships.
“One of the appealing things about the seaport is you can escape downtown, you can escape the hustle and bustle,” says Singh. “I know for sure that I couldn’t stand working in midtown. People have to do that, obviously. But to be able to escape and be on the outer edges is definitely a relaxing thing.”
Are passengers surprised to discover that their ship’s captain hails not from Maine or Michigan, but Manhattan?
“I guess people are a little bit surprised,” says Singh, “but they shouldn’t be.”