Stanford Magazine

In the Belly of the Boat

Barrett Sheridan
September 1, 2010

Nearly eight decades old, the John J. Harvey, a New York City fireboat, is retired from its days of patrolling the harbor and dousing dock flare-ups. Now it operates as a roving restoration project with standing in the National Register of Historic Places. But the aging technology still packs a wallop. To delight tourists, schoolchildren and other passengers, the ship’s five diesel engines can still suck up Hudson River water and send it gushing through the air at the rate of about 18,000 gallons a minute—an output equivalent to 20 fire trucks—with enough force to punch a hole through a concrete wall.

The dichotomy between that force and the engine-room operator who makes it possible is one of the boat’s biggest surprises. At 5-foot-5, the Harvey’s chief engineer, Jessica DuLong, ’00, has to stand on a wooden crate to operate the ship’s machinery, translating the orders of the wheelhouse pilot above her into the complicated lever-pulls that power the ship. A graduate of the Phillips Exeter Academy and a psychology major at Stanford, DuLong doesn’t have the résumé typical of a ship engineer. After graduation, she worked as an editor at an online start-up. But when the dotcom bubble popped in 2000, a few fortuitous volunteer days aboard the Harvey led to a new job. It was “a blissful accident,” she says.

By now, DuLong is a salt, so at home in the engine room that her nose can tease apart the strands of its pervasive stench: an “exhaust-fume bouquet wedded with a richer base note of lube oil and a trace of bilge bacteria,” as she writes in My River Chronicles: A Personal and Historical Journey. The book, newly in paperback, is part memoir and part New York waterfront history, spanning the days from Henry Hudson’s first exploratory trip in 1609 to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when the Harvey briefly returned to service, again pumping river water to help fight flames in lower Manhattan.