I scramble up and over the rusted-out hull of a small craft, lifting myself off what looks like a long mast dipping into water thick with oil slicks and who knows what else. Inside the boat, Cato walks one of the few planks left in the decayed deck. The opposite side of the plank shifts and lifts off the beam supporting it, and we all hold our breath. But Cato’s footing is firm and he crosses the deck and climbs down the opposite side. This hull sits in one below it like nesting bowls, a stack that makes up just a small fraction of the Staten Island Ship Graveyard.
Our expedition came together in front of South Ferry under gray clouds in crisp coolness. After walking our bikes past a K9 unit and onto the ferry, we stripped off cumbersome cold weather gear and split between watching the scenery pass by the open upper deck and the more mundane checking of tires. More gray water complementing the gray sky and we were soon on Staten Island, riding down an industrial coast.
As we were routed more inland we were pleased to find that MTA busses don’t make the same mad dash that they do in Manhattan, but the same could not be said for all drivers we encountered. Traffic moves at a fair clip on most roads on the island, and most of the roads we found to be in poor condition with little thought given to cyclists in design or practice. By taking it easy we were able to stay intact as individuals and as a group (to some degree), but there were moments of merging across interstate ramps that would be harrowing for the inexperienced.
Turning away from the busy Staten Island Mall back toward the coast, we bumped down Arthur Kill Road right past Crazy Goat Feeds, a natural pet foods store that Cato recalled as a landmark from a previous trip to the graveyard. Backtracking a bit, we came to a cemetery for people that lies on the threshold of the resting place of so many ships. We descended through the reeds onto the marshy lagoon with its clutch of rusted scrap.
The ships were bought up from the US Navy with intention of stripping them down and selling off valuable parts from the outdated vessels. Apparently as the junk accumulated, others got the idea of disposing of their own maritime trash in the same spot, and so the influx of boats was more than business could handle. As the ships became more corroded, the hazards of breaking them down began to outweigh any possible value to be found.
Though the view of half-sunken ships was magnificent, we all felt driven to closer inspection. Unfortunately the warped piers that stretched out to some of the scrap could only be reached through property with signs warning, “BEWARE OF DOG. NO TRESPASSING.” After just half an hour of adventure, we were ready to be on our way when we decided to knock on the door of the house that stood in our way and ask for permission to pass through. An old woman answered the door and commended us for our bravery in the face of the cold weather. She welcomed us to venture on and explore further.
And so we came to be scrambling amongst jagged metal and hard-weathered wood. Even more dramatically, Nafiun scaled a tower that had been toppled by the combination of flooding and wind brought on by Hurricane Sandy. Cato and Joy recollected multi-story structures that had most likely collapsed in the storm in the intervening years. As boards shifted or bowed under our feet, it was all too easy to imagine such catastrophe, and a bit of a wonder that any structure remained at all. It’s hard to guess whether the destructive changes have made more or less of a spectacle. I happily reached to document as much as I could, wobbling over water oiled slick and stench thick.
Even with this more extended exploration, we all clearly craved to go further. Nafiun, who lead every small expedition onto untested terrain, seemed particularly disappointed that he couldn’t find a path out a ship with a small cabin tagged “END.” However, our drive was not only facing increasingly insurmountable obstacles, but also our increasingly insurmountable hunger. And of course it’s hard for me to cap off an adventure with anything other than a round of pizza and beer. So we pedaled on to Joe & Pat’s, who served us expert pies (margherita, grandma, and vodka) and were happy to accommodate our large, slightly hunger- and exhaustion- and cold-crazed group. And finally to Flagship Brewing for well-earned drinks. I was particularly taken by their Roggenfest, a rye with assertive maltiness and chocolate and nutty complexities without being too sweet or mouth-coating to refresh us after a day riding around the island.