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The Journal News

Charting a New Course

Bob Minzesheimer
October 22, 2009

An expanded version of Minzesheimer’s September 9, 2009 USA Today story

ABOARD THE JOHN J. HARVEY IN NEW YORK HARBOR — Up on deck, a group of inner-city kids most have never before been on the Hudson River squeal in delight, getting drenched by water.

It’s not raining. But for a few moments aboard this antique New York City fireboat, it feels as if it is if rain were salty.

Down in the engine room, Jessica DuLong, 36, a former dot-com executive, is at the controls.

With a few tough turns of two large wheels, she opens four centrifugal pumps. There’s a rumble, a huge whoosh of air, and 16,000 gallons of river water per minute are sent skyward through water cannons up on deck.

As DuLong puts it, it’s as if “the sky had opened up, only upside down.”

DuLong, a graduate of two elite schools, Phillips Exeter Academy and Stanford University, has found a new calling as engineer of a 78-year-old fireboat that’s been given a second life as a floating and working museum.

And that inspired her to write “My River Chronicles: Rediscovering America on the Hudson” (Free Press; $26) published last month.

On Friday, DuLong, one of the few women licensed as an engineer by the Merchant Marine, will be the keynote speaker in Yorktown Heights at a Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES conference, “Women Helping Girls With Choices,” attended by about 100 fifth-and sixth-grade girls. And on Wednesday, DuLong will discuss her book at the Ossining Public Library.

She calls “My River Chronicles” a “perfect merger of my two worlds: my white-collar life as a writer and my blue-collar life as a fireboat engineer.”

When she’s not aboard the fireboat, DuLong is a freelance writer for an eclectic mix of magazines, including Rolling Stone, CosmoGirl! and Today’s Machining World.

But her favorite work space is found in the fireboat’s overheated, oily and rusty engine room. She can’t see the Hudson, only the sky through portholes above her head. The aroma is pure diesel exhaust She wears industrial-strength ear protectors.

“It’s a weird job,” she says, “but satisfying. It uses your brains and your muscles.”

In a “bell boat” like the Harvey, the pilot can’t control the propellers. He signals to the engine room using a pointer on a “telegraph,” connected by what looks like a bicycle chain.

Below, the engineer controls the speed and direction by shifting handles on two brass dials marked Slow, Half and Full in two directions Ahead and Astern.

At 5-foot-5, DuLong stands on a wooden crate at a control panel designed for taller men. She’s the first woman to run the boat’s engines since it was built in 1931.

The boat was retired by the city in 1994, and was about to be scrapped for salvage until a group of old-boat enthusiasts, including Chase Wells of Nyack, bought it in 1999, and slowly and painfully began restoring it

Two years later, DuLong, who was a director of content and Web site development at an online start-up in Manhattan, joined a volunteer workday on the fireboat.

It changed her life. Two months later, she lost her job as the dot-com boom went bust, but soon found a new home on the Harvey.

Being “the only girl in a boys’ world” has its ups and downs, she says. “Everybody knows your name,” but some assume she must be somebody’s girlfriend, not part of the crew.

She has learned a new appreciation for working with her hands and for “the elegance of objects made with the goal of longevity and an eye for craft.”

Her book is filled with questions:

“What constitutes real work in an economy that hinges less on making things than on selling and service? How do we find meaning in an increasing virtual existence, in a society that divorces us from the physicality of the land and the water?”

It’s also a history and appreciation of the Hudson, which DuLong calls “America’s first river of commerce.”

The Harvey was been as far north as Albany. DuLong’s favorite spot is World’s End, near Garrison, “a narrow passage that cuts two tight turns around sloping rock-face hills, their tops carpeted with multicolored bushes and scrub, where there’s no need to block out power lines, marinas, or townhouses in order to see the river the way Henry Hudson did.”

The book also revisits 9/11, when the fireboat suddenly returned to service, providing water to rescue workers and helping put out fires near what had been the World Trade Center. DuLong and the rest of the crew were celebrated in a children’s book, written and illustrated by Maira Kalman, “Fireboat The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey.”

DuLong remembers what looked like snow in September: “The powdery ash and concrete dust on everything like some kind of perverted Christmas.”

The Harvey, named for a fireboat captain killed in a 1930 fire, became a metaphor for the civic courage shown on 9/11.

DuLong has found her own metaphor in the Hudson, “the river that flows two ways, its waters a brackish mix of tides pushing seawater upstream and fresh mountain runoff pushing down. I know what it’s like to feel pulled in two directions at once: I oscillate between worlds: white- and blue-collar, virtual and physical, human and machine, preservation and obsolescence.”