North River Historic Ship Festival
Free boat rides, dockside ship tours, a circus on a barge, fishing on the river, knot-tying and more draw people to Hudson River Park’s Pier 25 in Tribeca for the Annual North River Historic Ship Festival.
The historic ship festival, an annual event in Hudson River Park since 2009, is an opportunity to showcase several historic vessels and give New Yorkers and visitors the chance to discover the beauty and importance of our waterways firsthand while they visit watercraft that played an important role in our history. The North River Historic Ship Society, a 20-year old not-for-profit organization, produces the festival each year. More than 7,500 people have participated over five years.
Seven Years of Festivals
The organizations that own and operate historic ships have been offering river trips and vessel tours for many years. In honor of the Hudson River Quadricentennial celebration in 2009, the North River Historic Ship Society decided to bring many ships together for its first historic ship festival. Ships from all over New York State participated and close to 1,000 people toured the ships and took river trips. The one-day event on Hudson River Park’s Pier 84 was so successful that the organization’s board decided it should become an annual event.
The 2010 festival, also a one-day event, took place at Pier 40 in Greenwich Village with the lighthouse tender Lilac, fireboat John J. Harvey and tugboat Cornell participating. While this was a smaller event, it set the stage for future festivals.
In 2011, Pier 25 became the first dedicated historic ship pier in Hudson River Park, providing dockage for both tug Pegasus and lighthouse tender Lilac. That year’s festival was a celebration of the pier’s opening and offered ship rides and tours over three days. Since then Pier 25 has been home to the festival, which has grown incrementally, with 2013 being the largest ever in terms of activities, number of ships involved and public participation.
How We Produce the Festival
The festival is a labor of love, run mostly by volunteers, with a part-time paid coordinator who handles publicity, ticketing and other arrangements.
While the boat trips are free to the public, they are costly for the ship operators who must pay for fuel, crew and maintenance. NRHSS must raise close to $15,000 each year to produce the festival. In 2013, fuel and crew costs for the ship appearances totaled close to $10,000, with additional funds needed for the circus, food and beverages for the gala and administrative expenses.
We could not do it without a lot of support. NRHSS produced the 2013 festival with support from the Hudson River Park Trust, the Friends of Hudson River Park, the Durst Organization, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and scores of people who donated funds and volunteered their time to make the event a success.
Advanced ticketing for 75 percent of the places on boat trips is available through the NRHSS website about a month before each year’s event. While all trips are free, there is an advance reservation fee of $5 per ticket. This money is refunded when people pick up their boarding passes. The remaining boarding passes are given out first-come, first served on the day of the event. It is always well attended, with boats filled to capacity on each trip.
In 2013, the North River Historic Ship Festival received excellent advance press in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Time Out New York, Time Out Kids, Mommy Poppins, and Battery Park City Broadsheet, as well as several blogs and weekly newspapers. It was also publicized by email blasts to the NRHSS mailing list of more than 1,000 individuals and families, in the Hudson River Park Trust’s newsletter and an in an email blast by Manhattan Youth, which generated a surge in circus ticket sales. Word-of mouth and signs at the entrance of the pier also drew participants.
Why It Matters
New York is a maritime city, with more than 500 miles of waterfront and well-traveled waterways that help make it the third busiest port in the nation. In fact, New York would not be the city it is today without its great port, which has been the center of commerce from the eighteenth century on. But many people don’t even realize that New York Harbor or the Hudson River exist or know what happens on them. The historic ship festival is an opportunity for them to get out on the water and see it for themselves while they learn about the importance of our waterways, past, present and future.
The festival has grown more popular each year. Participants have included children and adults from the neighborhood, the region and foreign countries. In 2013, visitors from France and India as well as neighboring communities and states enjoyed the festival. One grandmother from Harlem arrived two hours early with her eight-year-old grandson to be sure to get a spot on one of the boats. “This was wonderful,” the grandmother said. “When I saw the notice in Time Out Kids, I knew I had to bring him. He really needs to learn about things like this. It was even better than I’d hoped. We got to ride on two boats.”
The nonprofit North River Historic Ship Society was founded in 1994 to support and encourage the restoration of historic ships and to advocate for dockage space so that these ships can be open to the public.
Report by Capt. Betsy Frawley Haggerty, NRHSS Festival Coordinator 2009 – 2014