New York — Just out of Staten Island, Fred Wight pilots the huge, double-ended ferry and some 4,500 passengers northward. Ahead, through a thin morning mist, Manhattan rises from the sea.
As a deckhand back in the late 1960s, Mr. Wight worked the overnight shift, manning an older version of the Staten Island ferry as it plied the gray-blue waters between Manhattan's Battery and Staten Island's St. George landings.
''I remember 20 years ago Judy Garland would come down every once in a while at 3 or 4 in the morning just to ride the ferry,'' Wight recalls. ''She said she loved New York from here.''
Today Wight is captain of the ferry Samuel I. Newhouse, which, along with its twin, the Andrew J. Barberi, is the largest-capacity passenger ship in the world and a key part of the New York City transportation system. A Monitor reporter recently accompanied Wight for a day, as he piloted the huge ferry back and forth between Staten Island and Manhattan.
He reminisced about the ferry's history and his 30 years on the water, first in the merchant marine, later on the ferry. He talked of changes at the New York Harbor, which - before the decline of the great ocean liners - was one of the busiest seaports in the world.
Pointing toward the ''Emerald City'' looming ever larger as the ferry approaches its Manhattan slip, Wight recalls something else about Judy Garland: ''She said she didn't love the city so much from inside.''
At times, it can be difficult to love New York City from deep within its concrete trenches. Certainly a commuter who has to insert himself into the rattletrap subways or the bumper-to-bumper traffic of a Manhattan rush hour finds it hard to romanticize life in the Big Apple.
The ferry ride, however, seems more sane. The air is fresh, and each morning's nautical traffic along the five-mile run is a different stream of freighters, liners, naval craft, barges, and scows - some shiny and new, others rusty and weathered from long life on the high seas. Compared with the bottlenecks you encounter on Manhattan's streets and subways, it is somehow comforting and refreshing to glide slowly past these vessels.
On the Staten Island ferry, New York can be observed leisurely, approached slowly (18 m.p.h.), enjoyed in the abstract. And in this cash-devouring metropolis, the Staten Island ferry is an unbelievable bargain. For a quarter (can anything really cost just a quarter in New York?), one can ride round trip between St. George's landing on Staten Island to the Battery.
Twenty-one million passengers a year ride the ferry. Ten percent are visitors.
Two such, on a recent morning, were Elaine White and Alicia Portwood, students at the University of Georgia. They told an inquirer that they had decided to ride the ferry because the Circle Line tourist boat to Liberty Island costs $1.50.
''Where else can you get a boat ride for an hour for a quarter, round trip?'' Miss Portwood asks.
Why is the ferry so cheap?
Leonard Piekarsky, assistant commissioner of the Bureau of Ferry and General Aviation Operations of New York, says the real cost of the ferry ride is $1.50 one way. But for political reasons and because the ferry is so heavily subsidized anyway, all efforts to raise the fares have been abandoned. The city views the ferry as a tie-in between bus lines and subways on Staten Island and Manhattan; to build a five-mile subway tunnel or bridge between boroughs would be prohibitively expensive. It is costs less for the city to subsidize the ferry at $15 million a year and the federal government to provide $5 million.
Besides, there is tradition involved. The ferry has operated continuously since the Civil War. Starting the service with a $100 loan from his mother was Cornelius Vanderbilt, who went on to build a transportation empire. (Vanderbilt's treasure-laden passenger ferry Lexington, which burned and sank in Long Island Sound in 1840, was discovered by divers last week.)
Since 1905, the City of New York has owned the service. Unlike subways, cabs, buses, and trains, however, the ferry has never been halted due to strikes, weather problems, or system failures. In fact, the ferries, though not posh, are more comfortable and reliable than virtually every other mode of transportation in New York.
The only times the ferry encountered real difficulties, says Commissioner Piekarsky, was during hurricanes in 1938 and 1972. Strong easterly winds whipped up the water at the Manhattan landing and made it difficult to steer the boats into the slips. In winter, the newer ferries, with variable-pitch cycloidal blades rather than standard propellers, have proved formidable icebreakers.
At present, the Newhouse, the Barberi, and two older vessels can transport a total of 19,000 to 21,000 people an hour. Officials say some 70 percent of the passengers live on Staten Island and work in the Wall Street area.
'Until recently, Staten Island just has not been considered a place to go,'' says islander Charles Schinkle. ''Now, however, Manhattan is costly and crowded. Brooklyn, Queens, and the close side of New Jersey are all becoming similarly costly and crowded. Suddenly, Staten island looks attractive.''
Mr. Schinkle waxes eloquent about the convenience of the ferry.
''You can spread out, read the paper, or watch the scenery,'' Mr. Schinkle observes. ''And it's nice to know that no matter how anxious you are, it takes 25 minutes to make the crossing. You can relax during that time.''
An autumn breeze with a hint of petrochemical exhaust wafts over from New Jersey. Ahead are two helicopters, a small seaplane, two sightseeing boats, a Coast Guard ferry, two sloops, a Japanese freighter, and, heading south, the Newhouse's sister ship, the Barberi.
''Years ago, all the way up north, the water was filled with ferries and tugs and those big oceanliners,'' Captain Wight says. ''It was a regular parade. Now things have quieted down.''
It's almost noon. Two-thousand New Yorkers are on the Newhouse, riding toward Manhattan; most are reading newspapers or novels or watching harbor vistas. Wight notices a small pleasure boat speeding along a collision course with the Newhouse. Watching it out of the corner of his eye, he talks about incidents aboard the ferry: muggings, babies born, suicide attempts.
''One guy,'' he recalls, ''donned a bunch of life jackets before jumping. He was easy to rescue.''
The speedboat closes in. Wight and his assistant, Eddie Acevedo, prepare for evasive action. Then the boat cuts sharply and shoots alongside the ferry, the boaters waving and smiling. Below, a few passengers wave back.
Wight sighs and guides the ferry toward its Manhattan slip. It arrives right on time.